Writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short remains one of my favorite Best Picture Oscar nominees from the past few years, and not just because I was thrilled to see our mortgage companies getting dragged on the silver screen. I was less enthusiastic when I saw the trailer for Vice because I’ve developed an anti-partisan revulsion to the sight of 21st-century politics anywhere outside Twitter, which, despite careful curation, is roughly 85% all about 21st-century politics on any given day, even on slow news days. Sooner or later every discussion finds a way to go there, even in the sharing of cute animal GIFs.
Cross-pollination into movies was inevitable in this climate, what with the creative arts being one of the more profitable forms of protest and dissemination. But it’s a Best Picture nominee, so I stuck to my tradition and here I am.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Once again Christian Bale undergoes a radical physical transformation so he can play someone to whom he bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever. When most actors realize they have nothing to offer a role, they move on and find another. Not Mr. Bale — once he’s decided a role must be his, he has no qualms about throwing away his old life and starting over. It worked for the non-Balean protagonists of American Hustle, The Machinist, and Batman Begins. For his next Gallifreyan regeneration, it made sense somehow for the mercurial Welshman to play an allegedly evil American politician.
Vice, then, tells the probably true story of an alcoholic Wyoming lineman who, having dropped out of Yale to make more time for drinking, was motivated to get a life after his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) refused to play the meek Concerned Wife and threatened in so many words to have him murdered if he didn’t shape up and conquer America. I’m pretty sure I read that between the lines correctly.
Soon, which here means five years later (the film occasionally skips time spans without explanation, like a true blackout drunk), young Dick Cheney and his remaining hair inexplicably scored an internship in DC under one Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in a very different Office), who as of 1969 worked under the Nixon administration during the Vietnam War and was taking notes that might make useful reference when Iraq came up 25 years later. Old pro Rumsfeld took kid Cheney under his wing and taught him the esoteric ways of how to succeed in Washington for fun and profit. Cheney rose through the ranks from Guy in a Closet to Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff, but when Jimmy Carter’s election waylaid his plans, he retreated to Wyoming and turned the entire state into his secret lair because their population of eight farmhands and the Devil’s Tower park rangers couldn’t stop him.
Cheney later transitioned from Congress to corporate overlord for a time, which neatly coincided with the entire Clinton administration, thus allowing McKay to sidestep them altogether in another blackout of sorts. Cheney was convinced to return to the White House and the public eye when the Bush family all but begged him to join forces with wayward scion George W (Sam Rockwell, barely in the film at all). As the movie tells it, in some respects the duo virtually pulled a Cyrano de Bergerac stunt with Bush as the nominal figurehead President and Cheney behind the scenes as his puppet master, making high-level decisions formerly beyond the reach of the “nothing job” that the Vice Presidency has always been and remains to this day. The Cheneys felt this was Dick’s best possible career track once they realized that, should he set his eyes on the Presidency itself, he might be unable to overcome his troublesome personal barriers, cursed as he was with the irascible demeanor of John Adams and the faint, disturbing resemblance to mean ol’ Henry Potter.
Occasionally, people got in the way, including his own family. Bad moves, every one of them.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is younger daughter Mary Cheney, who made unwanted headlines as a lesbian in a high-profile family in the upper echelons of the conservative political machine. Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) is big sister Liz Cheney, who grew up to throw Mary under the bus for the sake of her own ambitions.
Other headline names of the day include Bill Camp (The Night Of) as placeholder Gerald Ford; Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, reluctant tool of the Bush administration and their Big Oil buddies; and LisaGay Hamilton (The Practice) as a version of Condoleeza Rice that keeps getting steamrolled by males. Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes double-feature) is a persistent White House adviser. Utility infielder Shea Whigham, in his eighth name-checking here on MCC, rules over a flashback as Lynne Cheney’s allegedly awful dad.
Blink and you’ll miss Alfred Molina (Dr. Octopus!) as a waiter in one of the film’s fourth-wall-breaking moments. My son also noticed King Kong‘s Naomi Watts in a split-second as a news anchor. Behind all of this and more is narrator Jesse Plemons (Fargo), whose secret identity is kept under wraps until the final act, when McKay cuts to the heart of the matter.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? As events unfold and Cheney crescendos in strength and cockiness, McKay soon gets down to brass tacks and the real subject he wants to address: the Unitary Executive Theory. As explained here, Cheney and numerous other Republicans subscribe to a viewpoint that believes if you read one certain passage in the U.S. Constitution just the right away, and rally enough believers in all three branches to back your play, technically one of America’s greatest and most binding documents purportedly contains a provision in plain sight that lets the President actually rule like a corrupt, non-American, rather British king, and not one of the classy ones. We’re talking as unchecked as Emperor Palpatine.
McKay makes the case that, once Cheney was introduced to that concept, he dedicated the rest of his working life toward proving that theory, even if it meant sitting behind another President and pulling his strings from the back seat. I’m not the right guy to debate this subject, but it’s not hard to imagine the present-day relevance from McKay’s perspective. One tries to keep faith in the whole “checks and balances” system. Some days and some news cycles are more inspiring to that faith than others.
Occasionally we do see Cheney do a nice thing here and there. He and Lynne unquestionably have a close relationship all throughout their 54 years of marriage. Whenever her husband falters (as when he has his first of many heart attacks), Lynne is right there by his side and/or taking his place to get the job done. He seems pretty okay with his daughters for a time, even in a daunting scene when Mary, in a very fragile state, comes out to her parents. Dear ol’ Dad pauses and, as she wrote in her own autobiography, responded by professing his love to his daughter no matter what. Lynne’s reaction, by contrast, is silence and withdrawal. I’m not sure it’s meant to tell us Dick was more accepting than she was, so much as it was McKay and Amy Adams being reluctant to second-guess her response to something like that.
In later years, when life goals plant a massive ideological wedge between the two sisters…McKay takes off the kid gloves in depicting Dad’s position in their argument and how it relates to his never-ending quest for power.
But along the way to that polemic, the film covers a lot of modern American history that may be news to millennials who grew up during 9/11, the Iraq War, the last recession, and so forth, didn’t read newspapers or boring news sites as kids and have no clear mental picture of what life was like from 2001 to whenever they became old enough to start leading their own Twitter hashtag protests.
Nitpicking? To some the Moral of the Story may sound basically like Democrats Good, Republicans Bad. If you enjoy subscribing to that reductive binary paradigm and love a story that kowtows to it, here one is. Granted, large-scale parallels can certainly be drawn between Cheney’s life and others’, for better or worse.
In the end credits McKay thanks all the journalists who wrote about Cheney and his cronies throughout the years, “without whose work this film would not have been possible” or words to that effect. If you enjoy subscribing to the recently evolved, shallow generalization that All Journalists Are Bad, I pause here so you can recoil in horror. I don’t really know what to tell you, though.
Beyond mere partisanship, the only real annoyances to me were the time-jumps over parts of Cheney’s life that didn’t connect squarely to the Unitary Executive Theory and, I’m guessing, were cut either to streamline the narrative or for lack of significant firsthand sourcing. The Haliburton years in general seem an odd omission, to say nothing of Cheney’s unexplained pole-vaulting from Wyoming town drunk to DC intern. In those gaps let’s just pretend there were deleted scenes with LeVar Burton descending a rainbow from the sky to recommend a list of books we can check out from our local library if we’re interested in learning more about Dick Cheney, Presidential elections, or Things That Enabled Guantanamo.
(Sure, we also have the internet right here for convenient learning research, but nobody wants an imaginary deleted scene of Geordi LaForge pointing at a Wikipedia page on his phone. Where’s the magical world of reading and the whimsy and wonder in that?)
So what’s to like? Vice isn’t quite an explicit campaign video for the 600 Democrats hoping to take the White House in 2020, and does indeed contain concrete, documented history within its maze of treachery and years of scheming. Most of it doesn’t make America look awesome and it’s discouraging to hear that, but McKay at least keeps the harangues brisk and engaging. While he does allow for a few comedic indulgences (not unlike The Big Short‘s use of wacky guest stars to define complicated finance concepts), for the most part he plays it straight, lets events unfold without smirking, and lets the participants implicate themselves with their own actions. In a way it’s a more mature approach in trying to reach an audience whose head hurts whenever they look at headlines and who don’t want to care about any of this stuff, even when it affects the very fabric of this nation that affords them the right not to care about it.
I found myself engaged nonetheless and trying to keep some of this in mind as our never-ending headline tribulations keep flabbergasting and astounding and irking and bemusing and humiliating as they do. That said, I still don’t get why Christian Bale had to be Cheney. He eventually lets the role consume ever fiber of his being per his usual M.O., and he emotes with nuance and gruff flair through an alarmingly accurate makeup job anyway, but…I mean, did Darrell Hammond say no?
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Vice end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely at the daunting sight of a director’s name in big letters and who really want to know what happened after the end credits without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…we revisit a focus group that, earlier in the film, had been tasked with reviewing the White House’s proposed press materials (or propaganda, whatever) for the Iraq War. Now the focus group has broken the fourth wall and watched Vice itself. Their moderator asks for opinions. A conservative and a liberal disagree harshly like Siskel and Ebert minus bathing, and get into a fistfight. Off to one side, another participant loses interest and starts chatting with the lady next to her about how “the next Fast and the Furious movie is gonna be LIT!”
Thus the group becomes an internet comments section, and democracy dies in indifference.