Vice President Dick Cheney’s life is creatively recounted in this bullish political biopic.
Written and directed by Adam McKay, Vice (2018) is bolstered by incredible performances by its lead cast, but hindered by strange and often jarring film techniques that pull your attention away from the drama. Both Christian Bale and Amy Adams show once again why they are among the best actors of our time by saving what could have otherwise been another mediocre polemic against the Bush Administration.
As the film opens, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is a young man struggling to find his place in the world and teetering on the brink of alcoholism. His wife, Lynn (Amy Adams), gives him an ultimatum to clean up his act. Cheney gets a job as an intern in Washington, DC and is fatefully taken under the wing of Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who becomes the youngest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history under President Gerald Ford. For a time, the two men’s fortunes seem to go hand in hand.
After seemingly retiring from politics, Cheney is approached by presidential candidate George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), to be his running mate. Cheney manipulates the gullible Bush into handing him unprecedented control in the executive branch. He uses his influence to fill various White House positions with loyalists, and virtually runs the administration from behind the scenes, when he’s not recovering from numerous heart attacks. There he pushes “unitary executive theory,” which seeks to hand greater control to the President, and by extension, himself.
Vice interweaves these political machinations with Cheney’s personal struggles. At home, he tries to juggle his deep love for his two daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe), while shielding them from the public eye. When Liz decides to enter politics, Cheney must decide between supporting her (and her position against same-sex marriage) and his longtime support for Mary, who is a lesbian. This more intimate look at Dick Cheney’s life almost translates into a sympathetic portrayal. At least, his motivations are more relatable.
Born Richard Bruce Cheney, the historical ‘Dick’ was raised in Nebraska and Wyoming. He failed out of Yale but graduated with a Master’s in Political Science from the University of Wyoming. He was White House Chief of Staff for President Gerald Ford, a U.S. Representative from Wyoming for ten years, Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, and then Vice President under Bush’s son, President George W. Bush. He was also CEO of an oil company called Halliburton from 1995 to 2000. Though he’s been called the most powerful Vice President in U.S. history, his cantankerous personality and uncompromising support for unpopular policies tarnished his legacy.
Filmmaker Adam McKay cherry-picked scenes from Cheney’s life to construct his narrative, and he imagined personal moments not even Cheney himself has spoken about, but McKay acknowledged these limitations. In one scene, Cheney and his wife speak Shakespearean dialogue in bed, because there’s no way to really know what they talked about in those moments. It’s hard to condemn him for that. However, I’ve written about McKay’s bizarre implication that Lynn Cheney’s dad had something to do with her mother’s death, and that kind of creative license is a lot less justifiable. Watch Vice with a grain of salt.
It would be difficult not to compare this film with Oliver Stone’s W. (2008) a similar biopic, albeit of President George W. Bush. In W., Vice President Dick Cheney is portrayed less convincingly by Richard Dreyfuss. As a supporting role, Chaney fades into the background and in one particular scene is put in his place by President Bush,who tells him not to be so vocal at meetings. Cheney’s history and close relationship with Donald Rumsfeld is barely mentioned.
In his defining moment, however, Oliver Stone’s Cheney becomes a cartoonish supervillain as he lays out his vision for an American empire in the Middle East. Cheney’s motivations in Vice are much more visceral. You feel his compulsion to defeat America’s enemies by any means necessary, even if the threats loom larger in his mind than in reality. Vice’s Cheney would have W.’s for lunch.
Vice currently holds a 64% positive rating from critics and 57% audience favorability on RottenTomatoes. Despite generally positive reviews, it grossed $9.9 million in its opening weekend on a $60 million budget. Ouch. Maybe Vice isn’t the masterpiece it pretends to be but Brian Tallerico was too harsh when he wrote: “For people even remotely engaged in the national political landscape for the last two decades, ‘Vice’ offers nothing new to consider.” This film offers a rare glimpse behind the curtain at a vice president who wielded tremendous influence almost completely out of the public eye. It’s worth the price of admission.