Vice, a biopic of Dick Cheney, deserves a B grade.
Writer-Director Adam McKay, a one-time writer for Saturday Night Live, gave us the superb The Big Short with its fourth-wall-breaching and digressive tutorials on boom-and-bust adventures in Finance–credit default swaps, Alan Greenspan/Ayn Rand, CDOs, shorting the market, sub-primes, leveraging, etc. Everything the moviegoer needs to learn about in a punishing, secretive and avaricious Finance world. Well, Vice, addressing the even more complex political world, falls short of that drama of the Recession. McKay not only simplifies the amoral psychology of Cheney and Rumsfeld but finds the biopic form awkward for the tutorials on political conspiracy and thievery which seem ever-needed, especially for the ever-distracted angry and uninformed audience of voters in “flyover country” who need to wake-up to the often carefully concealed DC mendacity ironically and specifically ruining their very well-being–recall all the grinning and shouting and above all adoring people–the “base”–on stage behind Trump at political rallies to “make America great again.” The question, How innocent are these voters?, seems idle.
Your heart sinks.
Tutorials needed in Vice? Yes, tutorials about such essential and disastrous developments as the narrow-minded thinking in the White House and in places on the Hill behind the self-defeating and immensely costly Iraq War (e.g., an estimated 600,000 Iraqi casualties); attorney David Addison’s “unitary executive theory” (an unenlightened promotion of the President as Above the Law, i.e., frankly a tyrant); lawyer John Yoo’s legal mumbo-jumbo seeking to justify and misrepresent the US torture of captured terrorists; shocking “rendition” arrangements with countries conducting torture; unfair special legislation to benefit large corporations, especially the fossil fuel companies (though McKay says nothing in follow-up about the highly relevant growing and widespread wealth disparity in America); and other authoritarian initiatives of these American times.
Amidst all this: the standard warning: Beware Hollywood biopics. Surely no elaboration needed here for moviegoers: In Tinseltown the first consideration is butts in seats. A distant second is accuracy. Here accuracy is just a Nice to Have. Call it a bonus.
As usual, simplification reigns at the movies.
Put elsewise: The major problem in Vice is indeed the simplification of Cheney, George W. Bush, Rumsfeld and others: they are vulnerable to the criticism of them in Vice but they are not simply out-and-out Draculean monsters to be parodied in a horror-redux. It would no doubt be challenging to dramatize them as “evildoers” (to summon forth one of the more notorious G.W. Bushisms) but as complex evildoers. One such balanced moment is Cheney’s reassurance to his tearful lesbian daughter that her sexuality, however dangerous for electoral politics, will not diminish his love of her. This is his finest moment, hinting that we may not know nearly enough about human psychology but that we’re still advisedly thinking of our behavior as neither entirely a matter of Original Sin nor entirely a matter of Circumstance. The challenge of complex characterization has seldom been met in literary art, and failures here should be met with at least a touch of sympathy and tolerance about what we might call an elusive Grand Verisimilitude. (A wonderful example of a dramatization of balance comes in James Whitmore’s magnificent one-man show years back on Harry Truman in which a broken-hearted Herbert Hoover, a Certified Villain of the Depression, breaks into tears in Truman’s Office when offered a role by Truman to help the economic recovery: the Better Angels of both men fly here.)
Given those caveats, the main theme in Vice, beneath all else, remains properly the lure and exercise of political power. There is the beginning-to-end and 24/7 visceral wanting of power itself in Cheney and cohorts and additionally there are the sub-plots of the principals’ behavioral and social machinations in their seeking to protect their ambitions through protecting their President in his exercise of power in any and all initiatives. Means and ends, however cynical, are secondary to the pervasive lust for power. Cheney and Rumsfeld are not alone here: their greater and lesser cohorts–Bush, Addison, Yoo, Feith et al.–are rightly defendants as well and shown as such.
And then there is Amy Adams as Liz Cheney. “Nuanced” has become a cliche these days, but her performance is superbly just that. She is simply a human: she’s unlikeable but fascinating and many-sided and more alive than Cheney (Christian Bale) and Rumsfeld (Steve Carell [miscast]), the latter living and breathing herein mostly in the sometimes whispering, conspiratorial and shut-door political world in Washington. Adams is innately powerful and smart and of the world at large. Hers is a fulsome personality. Credit Adams.
Vice ends bitterly. Cheney makes a final and irate appearance in which, posed in a chair as if being interviewed, he passes through the fourth wall and, unrepentant, leans in hard across the stage lights, glares down at the seated audience, and lectures us sternly. After all, we elected him. Just what did we expect? Cheney feels no regrets.
As a cautionary tale, Vice is worth seeing. Cheney makes a telling final accusation of us, eh?
The words “voter turnout” are not uttered in Vice. But the movie sure brings them to mind, resoundingly, as framed by the electoral mandate of Rejection we must follow successfully in the next few months of crisis in America.