At the end of Adam McKay’s Anchorman, we were informed that Steve Carell’s lunkhead weatherman would eventually end up in the Bush White House.
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McKay makes good on that prophecy in Vice, casting Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense to President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), but who years earlier also served as mentor to an ambitious and wily young politician named Dick Cheney, played by Christian Bale, whose impersonation here is impressive.
The movie positions the Cheney-Rumsfeld relationship as an important one — it’s Rumsfeld who shows Cheney that Washington is a place of ruthless careerists, a zero-sum political Thunderdome where winners displace losers and policy takes a backseat to power.
“Don, what do we stand for?” asks Cheney.
Rumsfeld laughs, as though the question were irrelevant.
Is Cheney just as cynical?
Vice struggles to provide a consistent answer. On one hand, it shows Cheney taking Rumsfeld’s lessons to heart — maneuvering shrewdly through presidential administrations, congressional posts, lucrative private sector work, and finally the vice presidency (after demanding, we’re told, extraordinary power-sharing concessions from George W.). He’s seen cackling with Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia (Sam Massaro) over the prospect of unlimited executive power.
He’s also pushed along by wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who spots Cheney’s potential as well as his potential flaws (there is an early DUI arrest), and who gets him to clean up his act before becoming his most capable adviser as he rises through ranks. Cheney is very much the Machiavellian prince here, motivated by personal gain. Initially, he’s supportive of his gay daughter (Allison Pill), but (says the film) he wavers when political expediency is required.
Yet after 9/11, we’re shown he’s also a man very much guided by ideology — the so-called one-percent doctrine that has the U.S. acting preemptively and often recklessly to fight the asymmetrical war on terror. Vice positions Cheney as the driving force behind the invasion of Iraq and “enhanced interrogation.” And if the Iraq War also fattens the balance sheet of his former private sector employer, oil services company Halliburton, well, that’s a policy goal as well.
The movie has a hard time drawing a bead on Cheney, and so takes the same shotgun approach that Cheney took while bird hunting with pals — pellets go in all directions, and the movie is full of gonzo comic flourishes, casting stunts, and cameos (Tyler Perry as Colin Powell). Visual metaphors suggest Cheney plays George W. like a trout, he and Lynne lapse into Shakespearean pentameter, and Jesse Plemons is a mystery narrator who speaks to us through the fourth wall.
McKay did the same sort of thing in The Big Short, but the tactics had a utilitarian purpose — to colorfully explain the poorly understood Wall Street investments that did so much damage to our economy. (McKay doesn’t mention it, but if Cheney had applied his one-percent doctrine to Wall Street regulation, we could have avoided a good deal of foreclosure and unemployment.)
Vice feels different. It’s covering ground that’s been covered and covered, offering little that is revelatory. It’s an end-zone dance on the legacy of a vice president who left office with a ruined economy, a blood-soaked Iraq, and a 13 percent approval rating, and though Bale’s shtick is very good, it doesn’t improve our understanding of the famously opaque Cheney.
A more nuanced Bale portrait of a man enamored of secrecy, strong-arming, militarism, and vigilante impulses can be found in The Dark Knight.
Directed by Adam McKay. With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Allison Pill. Distributed by Annapurna Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 mins.
Parents guide: R (language)