Movie Review: VICE (2018)
I had high hopes for “Vice” after seeing the trailer a few months ago. Hopes were dimmed after certain reviewers slammed the movie for not being critical enough of the Bush/Cheney era; then they were buoyed again when author Rick Perlstein and former terrorism czar Richard Clarke weighed in positively via social media:
Just watched VICE, the Cheney movie. I thought it really was Cheney and not Christian Bale. And I used to work with Cheney. An amazing job. Sam Rockwell as W was also spot on. Only a great script and acting could tell this story. #VICEmovie— Richard A Clarke (@richardclarke) December 27, 2018
Sadly, I’m with the critics. “VICE” feels disjoined from the start and never quite finds its stride. It keeps lurching. It begins in 1963, catapults us to the White House Situation Room on 9/11, then back to Cheney’s drunken, ne’er-do-well days in ’63. From there, it mostly stays chronological but with a few, odd jumps back into the Bush White House. Like the scene where’s he’s eating a Danish and jokes about eating healthy? And then it’s back to whatever it was—the ’70s or’80s? What the fuck?
The narrative innovations that felt effortless, charming and clarifying in writer-director Adam McKay’s previous film, “The Big Short,” feel forced here—like Naomi Watts showing up as a faux Fox News broadcaster. The worst may be the narration that frames the movie. The narrator is Kurt from Pennsylvania (Jesse Plemons), who says he’s close to Cheney. Almost related, he says. The big reveal is that Kurt (RIP) is Cheney’s 2012 heart donor. That’s the connection. It adds nothing.
12 years a turnaround
What did I learn about Dick Cheney watching this? That he was a Yale dropout with a drinking problem who had his share of bar fights and DWIs. The impetus for straightening up and flying right was his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), who lays down the law to her deadbeat husband: Make something of yourself because, as a woman in 1963, I’m not allowed; make something of yourself or I’m gone. So he does. Boom. In fiction, this kind of turnaround would make me roll my eyes, but it works here because: 1) we know where he’s heading, and 2) Amy Adams just nails the scene.
Twelve years later, Cheney is White House Chief of Staff. Wow. How the fuck did that happen?
It’s kind of a blur, but basically Cheney (Christian Bale, outstanding) becomes a congressional aide and then rides the coattails of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), portrayed here as outgoing, jovial, ribald—and at odds with Nixon’s men. This turns out to be a boon. Since he’s not an inside man, since he’s physically relegated to Belgium, he’s untainted by Watergate. As a result, after Nixon resigns and Nixon’s men go to prison, there’s not many top GOP guys left, and Ford taps him as chief of staff. When Rummy becomes Secretary of Defense, it’s Cheney’s turn. He’s only 34.
Looking at pictures from the period, they probably make Cheney too fat too fast, but maybe they had to; maybe he was still too handsome otherwise. It really is astonishing that the man who played Batman so well could play Dick Cheney even better.
Is height a problem? Bale is listed as 6’ while Cheney is 5’ 8”. Meanwhile, George W. is 6’ but the man who plays him, Sam Rockwell, is 5’ 8”. It’s all reversed. Combine it with Bale’s bulk and Rockwell’s wispiness and Cheney seems to dominate Bush all the more. It works metaphorically but probably too much. I imagine W. stood his ground now and again.
The movie implies the Cheneys expected Ford to win in ’76, which is odd, since he was polling behind from the get-go. It suggests Cheney was a dull candidate for U.S. rep who probably would’ve lost if he hadn’t had a heart attack, which allowed Lynne to campaign dynamically in his stead. As Wyoming’s sole U.S. rep from 1979 to 1989, it shows us various nefarious votes he cast—such as against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. That’s true; he voted against in 1979. It’s also misleading since he voted in favor of it in 1983 when it passed. To use the Rovian nomenclature, he flip flopped.
I like the false end-credits sequence in the middle of the movie, in which Cheney and wife live out the rest of their days in Virginia, raising golden retrievers. But then the phone call. There’s a lot of these “If not for this, history would’ve been different” moments, but the movie ignores the biggest. Why did Bush 41 tap Cheney, the House Minority Whip, for defense secretary? In the movie, it just happens. But Cheney wasn’t Bush’s first choice—former U.S. Sen. John Tower (R-TX) was, but he got shot down by his Senate colleagues because of allegations of drunkenness and adultery, and the Bush team needed a clean candidate. Despite the DWIs, that was Cheney. More irony: I remember Dems back then crowing about defeating Tower, but two things happened as a result:
- Dick Cheney was catapulted to national prominence
- Newt Gingrich became House Minority Whip
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Much of the movie feels like a primer on the era and may be necessary for people who didn't live through it or weren't paying attention: Bush v. Gore, Cheney’s power grab, 9/11, run-up to Iraq, the Iraq war, the torture of Iraqis, Fox-News, etc. chest beating. The movie crystalizes a lot of what went wrong in this country: right-wing money leading to right-wing think tanks leading to right-wing policies which are trumpeted by right-wing propaganda machines—creating a world in which the rich get richer and most of us got screwed. And most of the screwed keep voting for the screwers.
I like that McKay shows us the consequences of our actions. Nixon decides to bomb Cambodia and we see shots of a Cambodian village—before and after. A similar instance with Iraq is overdone—Bush’s twitching leg beneath the Oval Office desk tied to the twitching leg of the terrified Iraqi father under the table—but cutaways to scenes of torture of Iraqi prisoners are truly powerful.
The Valerie Plame affair is a blip: referenced, gone, along with Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk). Rumsfeld’s firing, too, seems to take place in a vacuum, but it was a direct consequence of the GOP losing the midterms in 2006. Would the movie have been better to have focused on one or two of Cheney’s relationships? Maybe just Rumsfeld? The student becoming the master and betraying his former master? As is, it’s scattershot. It’s warm family man vs. cold, calculating pol. The more he moves into history, the more unknowable he becomes.
Bale, at least, is monumental; I can’t recall an actor nailing such a well-known figure. That said, his decision to improvise Cheney breaking the fourth wall and giving us, in essence, Jack Nicholson’s “You want me on that wall” speech from “A Few Good Men,” feels like a mistake. Particularly where it was placed—near the end of the movie. We wind up lurching from the left-wing POV to the right with no intervening clarity. We long for a signal but “VICE” simply descends into noise. It ends with a focus group yelling at each other about, and then physically fighting over, Trump. Adam, I could get that on Twitter for free.