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Finding The Virtues Of “Vice”

Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney in new film

Photo credit: Annapurna Pictures

Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) share a moment in "Vice."

Companion viewing

"W" (2008)

"The Big Short" (2015)

"Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" (2018)

Hollywood doesn’t always leave treats under the tree on Christmas day but this year we got a pair of cinematic gifts: “Vice” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (which I will be reviewing next).

I have to confess I have not been a fan of Adam McKay’s comedies with Will Ferrell. “Anchorman” had its moments but “Tallageda Night” and “Step Brothers” were tough to get through. But in 2015 McKay found a new way to put his comic skills to work by tackling complicated real events with a sense of savage perceptive humor that made the issues addressed more accessible to the average person.

In “The Big Short,” McKay served up Bush-era economics and Wall Street the same way the “For Dummies” book series simplified topics for readers. Only McKay added in his own critical analysis. He found clever and usually darkly comic ways of showing viewers how flawed and corrupt the mortgage market was back during the Bush Era. So he has Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the downside of subprime mortgages. That’s more accessible — and attractive — for a mainstream audience than watching the news.

Now with “Vice” McKay gives us “Politics for Dummies.” McKay said he was struck by how Dick Cheney’s rise to power “synced up with the Republican revolution that’s changed America.” “Vice” connects those dots to deliver a film that’s equal parts hilarious and disturbing.

Photo credit: Annapurna Pictures

Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) take over the Oval office in "Vice."

The film follows Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale in another chameleon-like turn) as he goes from congressional intern to arguably the most powerful vice president in U.S. history. The film begins Cheney’s story with a night in 1963 when he gets drunk and arrested and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) lays down the law by telling his to straighten out or she’s gone. McKay endows her with a certain Lady Macbeth quality as she eggs her husband on to action.

Cheney comes across as a bland, monotone guy whose very flatness of personality allowed him to present the craziest ideas and make them seem boringly acceptable. McKay makes this point in a vividly funny scene of Cheney in the oval office. The pairing of the Machiavellian Cheney with the pliable George W. Bush led to Cheney wielding unprecedented power as vice president.

Because McKay makes no pretense about his film being a scrutinizing portrait of Cheney, he and the film have been criticized for some inaccuracies (here's one assessment of the accuracy). But McKay does allow Cheney some humanity especially in regards to his daughter (who revealed she was a lesbian) and his protectiveness of his family. But in his professional life, the film depicts him as being ever pragmatic and always on the lookout for how to advance his own agenda.

McKay deals with his bias in a funny stinger at the end of the film. For those who did not vote for Bush and who are critical of what the Republicans and the right-wing have done, the film will serve up a blackly entertaining commentary that may leave you angry or just a bit nauseated. The film takes a decidedly jaunty tone as it moves quickly through Cheney’s life even though there are some very dark things covered. So halfway through the film, after Cheney seems to be retiring from public life, we get a fake ending complete with title cards wrapping up Cheney’s life in retirement but it’s an ending that never happened. Similarly, McKay has fun giving us a Shakespearean scene between Dick and Lynne imagining what they might have said to each other as they pondered Bush’s offer for the vice presidency. McKay wants us to be aware that he is telling us a story that is mostly based on facts but not all the facts are known so he’s going to take some creative license.

But ultimately McKay wants his film to be entertaining because he wants to keep you engaged and to follow the story all the way through so you see the point. That point being that America has not reached the place where it is currently by accident or by some weird twist of fate. There have been signposts all along the way that we should have been paying attention to. That was basically the same message as “The Big Short.” The events of both films may have been somewhat obscured from public view but they were never completely hidden and both films suggest that maybe we need to pay more attention and be more engaged.

Photo credit: Annapurna Pictures

Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in "Vice."

McKay has a knack for casting and he brings Christian Bale and Steve Carell (playing Rumsfeld) from “The Big Short” to take on key roles in “Vice.” They are great as are Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.

When dealing with politics you will never be able to make a film that pleases everyone and I admire a film that takes a point of view especially when that point of view is presented with biting humor and a savvy cinematic style. “Vice” does what shows like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” do — they tackle real issues and real events as entertainment and dig in with a ferocious sense of humor as well as a sense of political outrage.

Video by Beth Accomando

Hollywood doesn’t always leave treats under the tree on Christmas but this year we got a pair of cinematic gifts: “Vice” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Here’s my review of “Vice.”

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