Vice (R) ★★½

Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carell star in “Vice.”

Vice Amuses and Confuses  

After a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Vice President Dick Cheney was whisked away to a secure bunker with other members of the National Security Council. After hearing that planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, Cheney authorized the military to shoot down any planes suspect of being hijacked. It was unclear amongst the others within the room if President Bush gave Cheney that actual command (Bush was grounded in Florida and having trouble with phone reception). This situation and others like it are at the heart of the film, Vice, where Dick Cheney, a veteran bureaucrat for numerous White Houses, is depicted as the puppet master over Bush 43’s presidency and the architect of many controversial decisions. Although Cheney’s historical role is ripe for exploration, director Adam McKay takes too many creative licenses with his narrative, which somewhat diminishes the exceptional performances in the movie.

The film begins with the events of 9/11 as previously described, before flashing back to a younger Dick Cheney (Christian Bale, Hostiles, 2017) in Wyoming getting pulled over for a DUI. Cheney, who flunked out of Yale, was floundering in a blue collar job and struggling with alcoholism. After this arrest, Lynne (Amy Adams, Justice League, 2017) gives Dick an ultimatum – he must straighten out his life, or she is leaving. The story then jumps to Washington D.C., where a refocused Cheney has found his place as a young Congressional aide.  Cheney quickly comes under the tutelage of a junior congressman from Illinois, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy, 2018), who is quick with jokes and vulgar language and helps with Cheney’s rise in stature and responsibility in the Nixon and Ford administrations.  Cheney ultimately becomes the youngest chief of staff under Ford, but after Ford loses his election, Cheney returns to Wyoming. With assistance from Lynne on the campaign trail, he becomes a Congressman but steps away from politics after a failed bid to win the Republican ticket. Eventually, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards in Missouri, 2017) calls Cheney to asking to join his ticket and fix his perceived inexperience.

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Steve Carell (right) as Donald Rumsfeld.

At this point, McKay, starts interjecting some arguably bizarre scenes and the tone of the film shifts. First, there is an extended scene with Cheney living out his days quietly on a farm with his family instead of getting back into politics. Shortly after, the Cheney’s do their best Macbeth imitation, as they plot (in unmistakably Shakespearean-inspired dialogue) to take control of the White House over a naïve Bush. These scenes are easily the most divisive as critics of Cheney will find these scenes as humorous and defenders of Cheney will see them as evidence of Hollywood’s liberal agenda. Moderates will likely find the scenes just confusing and unnecessary. After these “creative” interruptions, the film moves back to McKay’s version of the Bush presidency, where Cheney assumes control over Washington and concocts the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich.

McKay, who began his career in comedy has since become more political in his films.  Vice at times does a great job of shedding the background on key events during W’s presidency and helps draw lines from decisions made in that era that still affect us today. Unfortunately, McKay goes too far with his satire and his use of creative license as the comedic bits will confuse and distract audiences. The movie struggles with its tone and whether it wants to be a political exposé or satire. Adams and Bale’s characters are dramatic and intense while Rockwell and Carell are comedic like SNL skits. This is not to say that the movie does not have its merits and many will find Dick Cheney’s background fascinating as he has been a notoriously guarded and secretive public figure.

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush.

The performances are very strong, especially the leads of Christian Bale (who gained 45 pounds for the role) and Amy Adams, who becomes the manipulative, Lynne Cheney. Steve Carell nails the mannerisms and look of Donald Rumsfeld as well. Finally, Sam Rockwell, fresh off of his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in Three Billboards in Missouri, gives yet another strong performance as George W. Bush, although conservative moviegoers may find the depiction to be a hatchet job.

Bottom Line: Interesting subject matter and strong performances are blurred by the uneven tone and direction of Adam McKay.

Credits: Directed and written by Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale (Dick Cheney), Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney), Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld), Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush), Allison Pill (Mary Cheney), Lily Rabe (Liz Cheney), Tyler Perry (Colin Powell) and Jesse Plemons (Kurt, the Narrator)

Studio: Annapurna Pictures

Running Time: 132 minutes

Jessica DeLong © December 10, 2018