Often in politics, the most fearsome enemy isn’t the energetic commander, but the quiet and calculating tactician. This concept lies at the heart of Vice, a comedic biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney, played masterfully by Christian Bale, is portrayed as a quiet bureaucrat who, along with his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) slowly ascends the ladder to become one of the most influential political figures as Vice President under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). While the individual performances of Bale, Adams, and Rockwell shine, the overall structure and tone of Vice leave much to be desired.
Opening by jumping between a young Cheney driving drunk and Cheney in the Situation Room on 9/11, Vice gives an overview of its confusing, chaotic style and structure at the earliest possible moments. It also hints at the underlying question of the film: “How can this one man impact the lives of so many?” At times it seems like the movie itself, as well as mysterious narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons), is at a loss for how to answer that. Much of Cheney’s success is attributed to saddling up to the right movers and shakers in Washington, including foul-mouthed pest Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell). Rumsfeld gives Cheney his first glimpse of executive power, taking Cheney with him as he becomes an advisor in the Nixon White House. Witnessing the singular strength exhibited by Nixon and Henry Kissinger as they discuss secret Cambodia bombing missions sets Cheney off on his quest to wield that kind of power. Cheney ends up Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford after Watergate rocks the Nixon White House, which is where he first hears about the Unitary Executive Theory from a young Antonin Scalia. The theory is that a president can do practically whatever he or she pleases due to the nature of the office. This theory follows Cheney throughout the movie, and is proposed as a major influence on his transformation of the role of Vice President.
The first half hour of the movie is devoted to following Cheney’s ascent to power, and accomplishes the nearly-impossible task of having it feel too long and too short at the same time. Major aspects of Cheney’s tenure in Washington are glazed over, including his years as Secretary of Defense for George Bush Sr., during which he would have had oversight on the Persian Gulf War. Details on how Cheney oversaw intelligence and what positions he took during the Persian Gulf War would certainly shed light on his character as one of the chief architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, dwelling on Cheney’s house race and time in Congress seemed to drag, showing the highlights of his and Lynne’s partnership and first introduction to George W. Bush at a party. Dubya is portrayed as a drunken fool, a characterization which hardly changes over the course of the film. This, along with the annoying, vulgar Rumsfeld, is one of many characterizations which can lend to the narrative of the film as a liberal hit-piece. However close to reality the portrayals may be, the frequent sarcasm and creative moments (including Dick and Lynne speaking in Shakespearean verse) detract from the film’s credibility, almost inviting anger and pushback from conservatives. These moments of comedic relief were extremely effective in director Adam McKay’s film “The Big Short,” in which the complexity of the housing crisis was broken down by informative yet funny fourth wall breaks. However, Vice is more of a traditional biopic, in which humor and sarcasm may be seen as heavy-handed and unfair.
The movie does capture the build up and impact of the Iraq war incredibly well, spending time on the pushback from within the administration as well as from the international community. Especially prevalent is the strong objection by Secretary of State Colin Powell, played beautifully by Tyler Perry. Powell was a noted critic of the Iraq War during the Bush years, a reputation which doesn’t get enough credit today. Also taking a prominent place in the film is the emphasis on the impact of the Bush Administration on U.S foreign policy and intelligence gathering tactics. Spread throughout the film are scenes portraying the frightening accumulation of executive power, with Cheney playing a role in U.S domestic surveillance, as well as foreign kidnapping and torture. It rightly calls attention to the shameful uncovering of a CIA agent by Cheney and his Chief of Staff Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk), a crime for which Libby was convicted, although his sentence was commuted by Bush and he was ultimately pardoned by President Trump. These foreign policy black marks by the Bush Administration deserve scrutiny, as they show the frightening capabilities of American intelligence in the 21st century.
Ultimately, the tone and pace of Vice are what make it so disappointing. What could have been an honest look at the many sins of the Bush administration instead felt like a snarky hit on the mastermind behind it all. Further, characters drift in and out without much development, leaving uninformed viewers scrambling to keep up with the shifting list of key players. This confusion, especially for younger audiences who wouldn’t remember Bush lackeys like Scooter Libby or John Ashcroft, doesn’t lend itself to driving home the idea that the coordinated evil of Cheney and his web of players still have an impact today. In contrast to the cartoon villains currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, the Bush administration seems like a dream. McKay rightly tries to counteract that belief, but the jumps in time and comedic exaggeration only serve to confuse viewers and discount the message. This is not to say that Cheney is a heroic figure or that the Bush administration was good for America. There were real villains at large, and the decisions made by Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) continue to plague the U.S to this day. However, Vice fails to make a convincing argument for the seriousness and heinousness of those decisions. Ultimately, the movie was disappointing as a reminder of Cheney’s crimes, and it only encourages younger viewers to write off the Bush years as confusing bureaucratic maneuvering. Without a fairly significant background on the Bush years, viewers will likely leave the movie more confused than outraged. A character like Cheney deserves extensive study and criticism, but the length of a feature film and tone of a comedic biopic don’t lend themselves to that kind of portrayal. Vice has its shining moments, but hopefully, it serves more as an inspiration for further scrutiny of the Bush years rather than the ultimate study of them.