IT SEEMS a new category has slipped into the Oscars: best prosthetics-added portrayal of a fat personage. Gary Oldman successfully did it last year as Churchill, portrayed as a rough on the outside, tender on the inside, diversity-loving quasi liberal. This year, we have John C Reilly as jolly Olive Hardy; and now, Christian Bale as the Dark Lord, Dick Cheney. Bale is the winner! And a very definite potential statuette lifter.
Vice is a serio-docu-comedy. It certainly tries hard to be all three, and ends up being none of them. It’s an entertaining (because the Devil is always more fun than God), and entirely drama-free skim through of the life of an odious person. The story, apart from a few flashbacks here and there, begins with a young, dissolute and loutish Cheney and ends with the Darth Vader that we all know, still claiming to be doing his darnedness to keep America safe (Where have we heard that recently?). According to writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman 2), the power behind him and the catalyst of his lust for power at any cost was his wife, Lynn, played with steely conviction by Amy Adams.
The story offers us a whistle stop tour of American policy circa 1965-2006. Here are Nixon/Kissinger secretly plotting to bomb Cambodia (with a young Cheney interned to Rumsfeld); Bush Sr. pops up briefly; and then good old boy, Bush Jr. is ushered in to yield power and authority to Cheney (and inadvertently usher in an Imperial presidency). Cheney finds a way around congressional oversight to run things once the election against Al Gore is well and truly stolen. Then 9-11 offers him his big chance to sate the public’s need to bomb somewhere (Al Qaeda was too elusive an enemy), resulting in the Iraqi invasion, along with the torture, the lucrative contracts for Halliburton etc.
And the gangs all there: a befuddled Bush (Sam Rockwell, still befuddled from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it seems), a hawkish Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), an outfoxed Powell (Tyler Perry), an invisible Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), a devious John Woo (Paul Yoo as the lawyer that claimed torture was OK since the US didn’t do it) along with Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, David Addington, George Tenet, Antonin Scalia and a seemingly endless rogue’s gallery of White House power brokers.
It was an unpleasant ‘trip down memory lane’ to revisit all those old faces and their vile programs. And Bale’s Cheney, with his sneer and whispered plots, makes him the unquestioned leader of the gang, the bona fide Prince of darkness.
But, despite the bizarre use of a semi-comic choric figure guiding us through the story (Jesse Plemons of America Made), McKay’s noble attempts to introduce the throb of blood, the human drama behind high stakes negotiations and covert maneuvers, the whole enterprise feels curiously bloodless. It’s like a really, really well done, liberal-leaning History Channel bio-pic.
If you didn’t like Cheney before (did anyone?), you’ll really hate him now. But here there’re no new insights, no crazy Oliver Stone conspiracy theories, no never before known stories, no world-view reinterpreted with the passage of time. If one role of art is to help you re-see the world through new eyes, Vice has left me metaphorically blindfolded.
It’ll offer you a fun time wallowing in the past and silently hissing at a pantomime villain. But unless you were asleep from 1965-2006, and thought Kissinger, Cheney et al were lovely honourable men, you won’t find much here to either enrich or modify your world-view.
VICE. Dir./writer: Adam McKay. With: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons. Cinematographer: Greig Fraser (Rogue One). Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (Gringo)