Almost the Man
VICE is a great film that boils down a complex and fascinating political career to a movie that more than justifies its over two hour run time. While Adam McKay doesn’t reach the same heights as The Big Short, the neoconservative path may just be harder to understand than the financial crisis. Strong performances abound from Amy Adams to Steve Carrell to Sam Rockwell and especially Christian Bale. McKay excels at mixing together humanizing character moments, complex legal and business considerations, striking and emotional imagery and absurd humor with an emphatic point. The blend of these elements mostly pays off. Unfortunately, the solvable but complex mystery at the heart of The Big Short is missing in this political tale.
The film overlooks some of “what” Cheney did during the Bush administration, choosing to focus heavily on the “how”. In the beginning, McKay mentions how Cheney strikes with the precision of a swift knife rather than beating opponents down with a blunt hammer. McKay falls victim to his own analogy as buzzwords like the unitary executive theory dominate at the expense of a deeper analysis of on the ground practical problems that arose in Cheney’s mad conquest against terror.
History looks back at the aftermath of the Iraq war as an unmitigated disaster in reconstruction. Somehow, the movie glosses over the practical impossibilities and the concerning neoconservative agenda. In fact, the political ideology could’ve desperately utilized a quirky explanation about the seemingly groundbreaking idea (that didn’t exactly produce glowing results).
However, the handful of concepts that McKay focuses on hammering into audiences, slowly and methodically, is very successful. By the time the credits roll, audiences will walk away with a focused level of insight into the political machinations of Vice President Czar Cheney. Possibly more a critique of the ill-fitting genre, Cheney’s complex story needed more than a single movie to really understand everything at play.
Rather than finally finding a use for my Politics degree (specifically the Foreign Policy class I took at NYU that focused on the fantastic book Assassins’ Gate), I’ll focus more on the movie elements. Christian Bale is a sight to behold as Dick. In the beginning, we see a Bale we are more familiar with as Cheney is a run-down mess that must conquer his own demons in the first couple of scenes. This performance gets more subdued as the political puppet master learns the art of having the most power in any room without saying a word. As VP, Bale mastered the hushed demeanor of a political wallflower, even mimicking the subtleties in how Cheney would usher Bush away from his other advisors, so that Dick would always have the final call.
Another standout performance was Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. This political actor is likely new to some of the wider audience and the mentor-mentee relationship between himself and Cheney is fascinating. Some of the early scenes are entertaining but feel somewhat unnecessary. In fact, it appears that some of the earlier plot elements seem to have replaced key Rumsfeld scenes that would’ve portrayed the administration’s recipe for disaster in Iraq. This is once again the flaw of the script. Cheney and his cronies are somewhat reduced to one note cartoon villains with simple and selfish goals. Even if this was the real overarching plan, it was presented to the public (and Bush himself) with more grandiose ideals in reality. This portion of the narrative seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.
Amy Adams also showcases another fantastic role opposite Bale. Early on, Dick’s wife begins to show greater ambition and fiercer methods than the titular character. Her motivations and upbringing are clearly expressed yet underplayed. While her awful father and tragedy associated with her family is not shied away from, the film does not harp on this point to over-saturation. It is handled quick and efficiently to tremendous effect. Adams also masterfully gives the audience little callbacks to Lynn’s utilitarian nature through effective gestures from a reaction to her daughter’s shocking reveal and a so on-the-nose, it’s hysterical, Shakespeare soliloquy.
Aside from the acting performances, McKay’s filmmaking and pacing should be highly commended. The re-creation of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 through the Vice President’s eyes establishes the administration’s shock at Cheney’s true relationship with the President, while also gracefully handling an unspeakable tragedy. Within this scene, McKay can also present Cheney as the ultimate opportunist plotting his next move three steps ahead of everyone around him. Surprisingly, this cold and calculating approach can easily and rapidly adjust to his current surroundings, as the political board constantly evolves.
As a final point, McKay does a fantastic job at taking true stories from Cheney’s time in the White House and juxtaposing them with striking imagery. For example, the “telescreens” from 1984 are clearly being referenced in the use of a screaming Cheney on a gigantic screen during certain briefings with his staff. This scene shows how pent up Dick could get in the wake of 9/11, while also demonstrating the great lengths Cheney took to secure America’s safety, at least in his own mind. In that scene, Cheney is absorbing (and suffering) through every single detail of any possible threat. Harping on some unverified information could be argued to be a cost to our ultimate safety, but the inherent truth of the psychological toll that takes on one’s mind is not lost on the audience (as a metaphor or visually through shots of his pounding cranium).
Ultimately, I wasn’t surprised that McKay embraces a House of Cards maneuver to put an exclamation point on the movie’s resolution. Cheney’s narration can almost be aligning with the sociopathic Ozymandias from the Watchmen comic. After committing an atrocious mass murder, Ozymandias feels justified as he has achieved his goal of averting World War III and creating a tenuous but seemingly lasting peace among the nations of the world. With the same unhinged, unapologetic tenor, Bale derides the audience for any hint of judgment as he hides behind the veil of protection at all costs. While very effective, I believe the overflow of real-life political imagery did downplay this speech a little bit, resulting in a little bit of diminishing returns. I will emphasize again that you should see this film, but I hope a companion mini-series will also explore some of the less focused elements of the Vice President Conqueror.