The Unspoken Vice of “Vice”
By Kenny Larson
The silent shadows of a 1940s automobile creep across a desolate road on a dark Wyoming night. As the car lurches to a stop, a drunken Dick Cheney falls out of the car as the scene jumps to a crowded White House almost fifty years later. While news clips in the background of the shot show a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, a confident Cheney takes command and authorizes military action against any aircraft deemed a threat. An unseen narrator suddenly freezes the shot and contextualizes the scene. At that moment on Sept. 11, 2001, when the entire country was frozen in place, a former “ne’er do well”-turned vice president saw an opportunity to expand his executive authority and command over the United States.
What follows is, by my account, a masterful control of rhetoric and subtle plot devices that portrays Dick Cheney as perhaps one of the most cunning and ruthless politicians to ever rise to power in Washington.
“Vice,” directed by Adam McKay, condenses the life of former-Vice President Richard Cheney (Christian Bale) into a two-hour movie, filled with vulgar quips, compelling narratives, and high-stakes political drama. The movie spans over approximately five decades, beginning with Dick Cheney’s DUI arrest in 1962, although the majority of the movie occurs between the 1980s and late 2000s. Throughout the film, McKay explores Cheney’s entrance into Washington as an intern for then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), his roles within the Ford and H.W. Bush administrations as Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense respectively, and ultimately, his role as Vice President of the United States under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).
Ironically, perhaps the film’s most defining feature is its similarity to McKay’s other hit-film, “The Big Short.” Both movies play fast and loose with traditional movie structure by breaking the fourth wall and interacting directly with the audience. Whereas in “The Big Short” this was frequently done by “guest narrators” only present for one scene, in “Vice” this role is largely played by one narrator, Jesse Plemons (playing himself). Although his connection to Cheney is not revealed until the film’s end, he provides constant commentary on the events occurring in Cheney’s life and breaks down complex concepts for the audience.
That being said, “Vice” is certainly defined by more than its similarities. McKay chooses to rely on common motifs and imagery during the film to both foreshadow events and connote a deeper significance to his actions. The most prominent of these themes, for example, is the act of reeling a fishing rod. At several seemingly random intervals in the film, Cheney can be seen fly-fishing knee-deep in a calm, Wyoming stream. Shortly after these shots, however, Cheney proceeds to take advantage of those around him, most notably by tricking George W. Bush into granting him more executive authority. As Cheney lays his trap, McKay cuts to a short clip of Cheney tightening his reel, capturing Bush “hook-line-and sinker.”
For all of these reasons -- a compelling storyline, an accomplished director, strategic utilization of plot devices, and an A-list celebrity cast -- “Vice” should have been an incredible film. But by the end of the movie, something seemed to fall short; I was left feeling dissatisfied with McKay’s portrayal of Cheney’s life, although not because it was poorly executed -- quite the contrary, in fact. Rather, undergirding the entirety of the film was a pervasive confirmation bias that locked in a harshly liberal and polarized perspective of Cheney’s life.
To some extent, this was inevitable: Cheney’s approval ratings by the end of the Bush administration were consistently in the low-teens and, as admitted at the beginning of the film, “The following [movie]... is as true as it can be given that Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history.” That being said, however, these conjectures undermine the positive aspects of Cheney’s political life. The vice president was known for his atypical support for gay marriage that he remained steadfast in even after leaving the federal government. McKay, however, contradicts this fact by implying that Cheney encouraged his daughter, Liz, for coming out against gay marriage during her campaign for Senate. Furthermore, McKay uses Iraq War death statistics that remain highly controversial to suggest that more people died than can be confirmed.
Nonetheless, “Vice” has risen to national attention as the recipient of six golden globe nominations and one win by Christian Bale for his role as Dick Cheney. The movie is certainly still worth the 132-minute runtime, if not simply for strong performances from the lead characters. “Vice” remains in select theatres across Chicago and tickets are still available.
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay By: Adam McKay
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Jesse Plemons
Duration: 132 minutes