With DJT now (and somehow still) president, George W. Bush’s administration has enjoyed a resurgence of affection from both major political parties. His approval rating was in the tank when he left office, but recent polls show a majority of Democrats are now in favor of Bush.
So it’s understandable why Adam McKay’s Vice wants to remind us that Bush’s presidency was a massive failure, and he does so by focusing on the power-hungry puppeteer in the passenger seat. But this biopic of Dick Cheney, a dark quasi-comedy, feels like a debate tournament PowerPoint, not an insightful look at what makes Cheney tick. McKay reuses all of his magic tricks from The Big Short, but just like Rob Marshall recycling Chicago when he made Nine, they don’t make sense here. Despite good performances, Vice is sophomoric, not satisfying as a traditional biopic or as a satire.
The Big Short used humor to make subprime mortgages digestible. There was an urgent warning at its core not to forget the roots of the 2008 financial crisis. Judging by the volatility of the stock market today, McKay and team had reason to warn us. But Vice doesn’t tell us much about Cheney we don’t already know. He speaks softly and succinctly, calm as ice and hungry for ultimate power. He doesn’t seem to have any core principles to rely on, so we learn in an early scene with Donald Rumsfeld. He sets himself up with unprecedented intelligence access for a vice president, which he uses to drum up a case for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Even his most redeeming moment–his support for Mary, his lesbian daughter–is reversed when he permits daughter Liz Cheney to disavow gay marriage in her House election campaign.
Also in the White House: the same lazy characterization of George W. Bush we’ve seen a hundred times. We’re introduced to Sam Rockwell’s W stumbling drunkenly around a party, with the intelligentsia laughing at the idea he’d ever be president. He sits like a harmless observer through Cabinet meetings and waits until Dick whispers his “decision” in his ear. Seriously, how many times can we absolve Bush for his decisions as president? Is he less worthy of the filmmakers’ ire than Cheney is?
Our current president would enjoy McKay blaming Cheney et al. for ISIS, too. We see early intelligence on ISIS buried as the administration busies itself with the case for invading Iraq. McKay follows this with a long shot of a blood-stained subway car–the aftermath of a terrorist attack–and stats on the number of people killed by ISIS. Cheney’s fault, the film seems to say; I found it reductive and overblown.
The movie is stuffed to the gills with shots of fish hooks and fishermen, in the spirit of Cheney’s favorite Wyoming pastime. After seventeen of these, we get it. Vice is better when it stops pedaling in obvious metaphors and takes things seriously. On 9/11, Cheney’s final approval to shoot down any suspicious aircraft startles many in the room, including Condoleeza Rice. We wince when Colin Powell is forced to address the U.N. before the Iraq invasion. Then there’s Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, who gives life to the dutiful wife with a steely conviction few can match. When Dick is hospitalized during his House election campaign, Lynne picks up the mic and wins over the crowd. She’s a loyal partner, holding up her end of the bargain as long as Dick earns the success and power she’s imagined for him.
Christian Bale commits physically, like always, to playing Cheney. He deliberately doesn’t let us look too deeply inside the man. Maybe there’s a real human being in there, or maybe he’s just a power-craven robot. The point of the movie seems to be, we’ll never really know. But do we care? If we’re going to be outraged at Cheney overstepping executive boundaries and filling up Guantanamo Bay, does it matter how much he loves his family? Vice doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to say: is it solely propaganda, or a honest attempt to look inside the soul (if he has one) of one of the most mysterious and influential politicians in recent history?