Man or monster? Vice struggles to find the former
By Nick Milligan
Adam McKay’s biopic about former US vice president Dick Cheney opens with a joke concession, in which he admits the inherent difficulty in tackling one of the most secretive leaders in history. “We did our fucking best.”
It is certainly a prescient statement, and a strange jumping point, as the ensuing 132-minutes of finely acted tragicomedy struggles to peel back the veneer of one of American politics’ true monsters.
McKay wrestles with the contradictions of Cheney, played here with real calorie-induced bulk by a chameleonic and intense Christian Bale. On one hand, Cheney was simple: a Yale dropout who returned to his Wyoming hometown and drowned himself in whiskey, putting up utility lines to earn a crust and getting booked twice for DUI. A stern dressing down from his sweetheart, Lynette Vincent (a typically committed Amy Adams), sees him get his life back on track. He becomes a Republican intern for a young, irreverent Donald Rumsfeld (a typically comical Steve Carrell), and gets a taste of the potential power of political life. He marries Lynette, starts a family and becomes a quiet, scheming and upwardly mobile American male archetype.
“…in the face of all this bloodshed McKay, through Bale, attempts to humanise Cheney – to unveil the dichotomy that apparently makes this bespectacled master manipulator more than the loathsome and malevolent being his acts might suggest.”
The contradiction, which Vice attempts to explore, is Cheney’s cold-blooded ruthlessness. This is easy to depict in all of its stark barbarity, thanks to innumerable hours of real footage: bombs over Baghdad and prisoners being humiliated and tortured by US soldiers. It all unfolds under Cheney’s detached stare, as he sets himself up as the puppet master behind POTUS George W. Bush (played by a note-perfect Sam Rockwell). Bush Jr. and Cheney make something of a Faustian pact, allowing Cheney to become the architect of a fabricated war in which an estimated 655,000 people died.
But in the face of all this bloodshed McKay, through Bale, attempts to humanise Cheney – to unveil the dichotomy that apparently makes this bespectacled master manipulator more than the loathsome and malevolent being his acts might suggest.
Did he love his wife? Check. Was he accepting of his gay daughter? Check. Did he tell dad jokes around the family lunch table? Check. Did he like fishing? Check. Did he like hunting? Famously.
But to what does all that amount? Talk to FBI profilers and they’ll tell you serial killers are likely to be quiet, Caucasian family men. So McKay doesn’t have a lot to work with – he grasps at straws, somewhat, in his efforts to humanise Cheney. It all feels unsatisfying – and doomed from the outset. As that jokey opening concession states, McKay doesn’t have the answers that would make this biopic compelling or revelatory.
The director doesn’t shy away from the glaring facts either – this is, as a post credits sequence jokes, a Liberally slanted view of a conservative politician. So in McKay’s direction, and Bale’s performance, we see Cheney’s thirst for power in all its reptilian glory. Bale stares down the camera, via video link, during his secret meetings over the pursuit of Saddam Hussein on very spurious intelligence. That same stare is bundled into a montage of families blown to smithereens, waterboarding and solitary confinement. We even see it, in an early flashback, as young Cheney gazes dispassionately at a co-worker who’s fallen from a telecommunications pole and suffered a compound leg fracture.
So McKay is searching for the answer to the question: “Did Cheney have a heart?” This is a gift for a storyteller, given that Cheney had an ongoing heart condition that plagued him in later life. His heart, literally and metaphorically, is very much under the microscope in Vice, but the metaphorical incarnation remains elusive.
Ultimately Vice doesn’t offer any fresh insight into Cheney that might not otherwise be known to a layman. His attraction to unequivocal power, his connection to big oil and loyalty to financial interests, saw his political decisions end hundreds of thousands of lives, the ripple effects still felt today through the rise of ISIS and ongoing Middle East instability. Cheney surely had, in every definition of the term, a God complex.
McKay’s best work is rooted in lowbrow American comedy and his success with creative partner Will Ferrell is immense. He’s directed Ferrell in a list of rewatchable hits: Anchorman and its sequel, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights and The Other Guys, not to mention the pair’s hit website Funny or Die and their classic HBO show Eastbound & Down. McKay and Ferrell have brought much joy to the world.
But McKay clearly has aspirations beyond the loveable bastards Ron Burgundy and Kenny Powers, and in Dick Cheney he might have the greatest bastard of them all. Indiscriminate murder and torture were likely beyond our favourite anchorman and fading baseballer.
This ambition was evident in his 2015 comedic exploration of the global financial crisis, The Big Short, in which a group of investors predicted impending catastrophe. It earned him an Academy Award for Best Director. In The Big Short, McKay employed many of the tricks he uses in Vice: visual gags, meta breakdowns – bells and whistles – to liven what he clearly perceives as important but potentially very dry material for a mainstream audience. As subject matter, there’s little more sedative than economics, so in The Big Short McKay had Margot Robbie bathe naked in a bathtub to explain… well, this reviewer can’t recall. She was naked, though.
McKay seems to have a similar view of politics so in Vice he crafts a similar comedic rhythm, the film’s tricks occasionally mirroring those employed by William Shakespeare (one bedroom conversation between Lynette and Dick is actually written by McKay in a deliberately Shakespearian style). The narrator breaks the fourth wall, a device often used by The Bard, alongside many other moments that dip in and out of reality. But if you have a rudimentary interest in American politics – enough so to buy a ticket to watch a movie about Dick Cheney – then you might find these interludes distracting and superfluous. McKay is essentially dumbing down the material, breaking it into bite-sized pieces and assuming absolutely no knowledge on the part of the audience.
And, hey, maybe his assessment of the American public is totally accurate. Maybe most Americans can’t really tell you about Dick Cheney and the impact he had on their lives. He was, by all accounts, the ghost who walked. A covert operator.
If he only had a heart.
Vice is out now in Australian cinemas.