'Vice' Review

The best superhero origin story of the year

December 21, 2018

Vice—the new biopic about our greatest living vice president, Dick Cheney—is the movie our country needs right now: a story about a small-town guy who overcame the odds and kept his fellow Americans safe in an age of nihilistic terror. It is also the hagiography we need right now, a reminder that America's greatness lies not with its natural resources or fantastic wealth but within the spirit of her citizens.

One gets the sense that writer/director Adam McKay intended Vice as a damning critique of the Republican Party's Darth Vader. If that's the case, he's badly missed the mark. The Dick Cheney we see in Vice is someone to admire, someone who has overcome adversity and made something of himself despite early stumbles.

As the film opens, Cheney (Christian Bale) is working out in the wilds of Wyoming, stringing telephone line. He's been kicked out of Yale, reduced to manual labor and hard drinking in order to numb the pain of his being expelled. Fortunately, he has a good, strong woman to turn him around: Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight, telling him that if he wants to prove himself worthy of her love, he better snap out of it.

Snap out of it he does: the portrait that emerges of Dick Cheney is that of a man who adores and works for his family first, last, forever. When he suspects that Lynne's father (Shea Whigham) may have killed her mother, the future VP plays protector, standing tall and severing contact. When daughter Mary (Allison Pill) comes out to the family, he accepts her sexuality despite the fact that Republicans are supposed to be the big, bad monsters when it comes to gay rights. When he gets his first office in the White House—a windowless dungeon barely fit for human habitation—he excitedly calls home, eager to share his good fortune with the wife and kids.

Cheney learns the rules of Washington, D.C., as an intern for then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell). They are pretty simple: keep your mouth shut; do as you are told; and be loyal. Words of wisdom for any underling. Cheney learns more than these rules; he absorbs the value of pithiness. His devastating one-liner unmanning Sen. Patrick Leahy—"Go f—k yourself"—was deployed to guffaws from the audience with whom I saw Vice.

As Cheney climbs the ladder of success—pulling himself up by his bootstraps from intern to congressman to secretary of defense to multinational CEO to vice president of the United States—we see that he's not some vicious ideologue. He's a pragmatist! He's just looking to get things done with minimum muss and fuss. So when he slides into the role of pseudo-president during the 9/11 attacks, we nod along. Of course he would. He's got the experience; he knows the lay of the land. It's only right. Here's a man with a plan, and that plan involves keeping Americans safe no matter what the weak-kneed legal eagles have to say about it.

Despite the hagiographic elements at play here—really, Cheney should send McKay a nice bottle of scotch for putting together such a paean—Vice, sadly, isn't perfect. No, it's actually a bit of a disaster as a piece of cinematic storytelling.

Vice has a split personality problem. The film's first personality is that of an absurdist buddy comedy between Cheney and Rummy, with Rummy playing the mentor who has to show his young charge the ropes and Cheney playing the willing student who learns the lessons of D.C. intrigue all too well. By film's end, Cheney is VP, Rumsfeld is a floundering SecDef, and our hero is forced to put his old friend out to pasture. There's something beautifully funny and tragic about it. It's a story with a natural beginning, middle, and end.

The second personality, meanwhile, resembles an internet-addled crank ranting conspiratorial talk about billionaires and corporations. Kochs! Coors! Fairness Doctrine! Solar Panels! Blood for Oil! War for Pipelines! Unitary Executive Theory! McKay tries to tie this half of the film to the other half of the film with limited success, lazily relying on a voiceover by Jesse Plemons to convey each grievance efficiently and artlessly. There's another tragicomedy to be made here, one about the efforts of philanthropically minded billionaires who see their civic efforts culminate in the election of a billionaire with no sense of civic duty whatsoever. But it's a separate film and should have been treated separately.

The resultant mishmash renders Vice a disjointed affair. It's too bad that McKay's airing of grievances distracts from the truly inspiring portrait of a man so beloved by all that when he shot a guy in the face, that guy apologized to him for getting in the way of his birdshot. Cheney's the hero America deserved during her darkest moment—and it's nice to see him get his cinematic due.

Published under: Movie Reviews