VICE, US, 2018. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Eddie Marson, Alison Pill, Shea Wigham, Lilly Rabe, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, Bill Camp, Fay Masterson, LisaGay Hamilton. Directed by Adam McKay. 132 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).
With an ambiguous title that suggests evil, here is a film about Dick Cheney. It is not a love letter to Cheney, not a skerrick of fan mail except for one skerrick, his supportive stance for his gay daughter, Mary. On the one hand, this is very serious subject. On the other hand, it has many moments of Saturday Night Live sendup and satire, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and very often, a tongue poked out.
Whether audiences will enjoy the film or not will depend on two things. One will be how old they are and how much of this 50 years of American political history they lived through and remember, moments that are vivid in their memories but which are now part of sometimes ancient history for those who are younger. Even the impact of 9/11, powerfully presented here, occurred 17 years ago.
The other factor will be the political perspective of the audience. The film has not been made for those who lean to the right (except to provoke them often enough). It is obviously a “left-leaning” film – reinforced by a sequence for those who stay for the credits with a think-tank discussing this very issue, almost coming to blows about liberal prejudice.
While there is a linear thread throughout the film, from seeing the young Dick Cheney in his old alcoholic days in the mid-1960s, to his being taken in hand by his demanding wife, Lynne (Amy Adams in a very strong performance), going to Washington and beginning a career in politics leading to almost absolute power before downfall, under the mentorship of a gung-ho Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell completely opposite to his sympathetic father in Beautiful Boy), Seeing doubled over with laughter at Cheney’s suggestion that there were moral issues to consider.
And Cheney himself? While the film opens with the anxiety of the politicians as the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, a greying, heavy Cheney, the early flashbacks help us to see Christian Bale as we recognise him, preparing us to accept him as an unrecognisable Cheney (except for some verbal reminders of Bale).
Writer-director Adam McKay began his career in comedy, especially with Will Ferrell (one of the producers of this film). So, he draws on many comic devices of editing, flashbacks, the credits rolling in the middle film and then suddenly stopping because there is more to Cheney’s career!
Also compelling is Sam Rockwell as George W Bush, seen first drinking, then boyishly with the Republican nomination, munching chicken and discussing the possibility for Cheney to be Vice-President, trying to come to grips with issues about Iraq, ordering the invasion after whispers from Cheney.
Cheney takes for granted his significant political career, Chief of Staff at the White House, Secretary for Defence, easily hobnobbing with all the powers that be, CEO of Haliburton and unashamed about Iraq contracts. He reshapes the role of the Vice President from ornamental to all-powerful, George Bush happy and rather relieved. And, all the time, Lynne Cheney is by his side.
In many ways, there is almost too much to take in. We are immersed in the Nixon era, Watergate and the resignation. We are briefly immersed in Gerald Ford’s losing the election and Jimmy Carter winning. Then there is the Reagan era, the election of the first George Bush (but no mention, to all intents and purposes, Clinton and his era). For those who lived through these events, there is plenty of ticking off memories, perceptions, re-appraisals. For those for whom this is all history, they may need to go to references books (or Wikipedia) to check on numerous details.
Ultimately, the film focuses on 9/11 and consequences, Cheney taking an opportunity to promote war, to promote oil interests, to shape public opinion linking Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, controlling information and intelligence data.
And, comparatively great was the fall thereof, heart attacks, heart transplant (and a narrative by an odd character played by Jesse Plemons, an ordinary worker, soldier in Vietnam, knocked over in an accident who tells us that he is related to Cheney in a different kind of way, his new heart!).
History has not been kind to Cheney. But, here is a powerful performance, strong cast dramatising influential political and legal characters of the period, questions raised about politicians, competence, using and abusing power, consequences for the public – and only a mention about the present incumbent of the White House, a reference to his orange hair which might be missed, although there are moments of the real Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence seen speaking in Congress.
Probably worth seeing again to absorb all the questions and all the challenges (and to enjoy the satire, for those who are “left-leaning”).
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
eOne Released December 26th