Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday January 21, 2019
Movie Review: Free Solo (2018)
There’s no more thankless role in movies than the wife who urges her husband away from the plot. We’re here to see the hero do X (investigate the JFK assassination, say, or fight foreigners who disparage Wing Chun), she tell him, “Don't do that, you’re breaking apart the family!” or whatever her argument is, and so we have to wait until she caves or goes away and we get to watch the hero do what we paid to see him do.
“Free Solo” contains the first non-fiction version of this thankless role I’ve seen.
The documentary by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”), is about Alex Honnold, one of the most acclaimed free solo rock climbers in the world. “Free solo” means climbing without ropes, harnesses, etc. You fall, you die. He's one of the most acclaimed in the world not only because he boldly goes where no one has gone before, but because the others keep dying.
Why does Alex do it? He says he likes how focused and concentrated he has to become. I have a friend, Craig, who wrote a song in the ’90s called “Marina,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem of the same name, and which includes many of the same words. Both begin, for example, with: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/What water lapping the bow.” My friend’s song, though, contains a thought not in Elliott’s poem:
I’d trade all the world and all time before me
For one pure day alive
I believe that’s Alex’s trade-off. He’s risking all time before him for one pure day alive.
Oh, there’s another factor for why he does it. There’s a portion of our brains, called the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear; and after Alex has a brain scan we find out his amygdala is way less responsive than the norm. The fears that stimulate the amygdala in others don’t for his. Which is why he is able to do what he does.
Who knows? Maybe he free solos so he can feel as much of a thrill as we feel when we do a cannonball off the high dive.
Live long and prosper
Anyway, that’s our guy. He’s been on the cover of all the rock climbing mags, as well as The New York Times Magazine. He makes a decent living—as much as a dentist, he tells the kids in his old high school—but he lives sparingly, in a kind of junky mobile van, where he stir-fries meals and eats them with a spatula to give himself fuel for the next day’s climb. He’s superfit, with a fantastic core and fantastic balance (he does the tree pose on a tree fallen at a 45-degree angle), and with hands and fingers so strong and fine-tuned they look like they could seek out nerve endings in your neck and kill you. He looks like he could do the Vulcan neck pinch. (I wonder what amygdalas in Vulcans are like?)
He’s a good-looking kid, too. At times, I was thinking Lukas Haas grown up; other times, Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”). He’s got insanely large pupils that no one comments on. Very little of the white part, the sclera. I was reminded of Robert Durst, the accused murderer featured in the HBO doc, “The Jinx,” which is obviously less a compliment than Jim Caviezel or Lukas Haas.
As the doc opens, Alex is already at the top of his game; but he has a challenge remaining: to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,200-foot sheer granite vertical climb that no one has ever free-soloed. Because, you know, it would be insane. Besides the 3,200 feet straight up, El Capitan has six “trouble spots,” which, in rock-climbing parlance, indicates an area where you don’t have fractions of an inch to rely upon for finger- or toe-holds; where you somehow have to vault the blank area to the other fraction-inch finger/toehold. All of this at 600 feet up, or 1500 feet up, or whatever it is; where the trees below look like tiny stalks of broccoli.
The best comment on the idea of free-soloing El Capitan comes from rock climber extraordinaire, and Alex’s friend, Tommy Caldwell:
People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like, “Oh, he’s totally safe.” And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Chin’s camera crew follows him around as he prepares for this feat. “I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Alex says. He also says: “I could just walk away, but I’m like, I don’t want to.”
El Capitan, though, turns out to be just one challenge Alex has to overcome. The other is the girlfriend who urges him away from the plot.
By his own admission, Alex, despite being handsome and fit as fuck, didn’t date much. He wasn’t into the long-term thing. He has some pretty fun, almost Vulcanish comments about love. But as the doc progresses, he does, in fact, have a girlfriend, Sanni, whom he met at a book-signing. She did the cheeky thing: As he signed her book, she slipped him her phone number. And because she’s cute, with a high-wattage all-American smile, complete with dimples deeper than some fingerholds he uses, they got together and became a couple.
They seem good together, and sweet, and he takes her on climbs. Not free solos—regular climbs with ropes and safety gear. Which is when Alex begins to fall. The man who never fell before is suddenly falling. It’s almost a metaphor for love if Alex seemed like somebody in love. At one point he hurts his back; in the other, he sprains his ankle. Alex never used to get injured, Caldwell says; yet here, in the summer of 2016, before he’s attempting to free solo El Capitan, it happens twice with Sanni. Is she a jinx? A distraction? No one raises such points in the doc; we, in our seats, raise them ourselves.
He tries the free solo anyway in the fall of 2016, five weeks after he sprained his ankle. Doesn’t take. In the early morning dark, he gets to the first trouble spot, “The Boulder Problem,” 600 feet up, and decides to return. The others talk about how they’d never seen Alex do that before. He seems defeated. At the same time, just think about what he’s done. He spent the morning free-soloing 600 feet—or two football fields—straight up a granite monolith. For you or I, that would be the achievement of a lifetime. To him, it’s a crushing defeat. His amygdala remains unstimulated.
That winter, he and Sanni buy a house outside of Las Vegas. Why Vegas? No one says. But now he has his own place. I love them shopping for refrigerators together, opening and closing doors on these behemoths, and Alex settling for a regular-sized model circa 1960.
But he still has his mind set on El Capitan. And the closer he and Sanni get, the more it bothers her. Early on, she’s the modern “you do you” girlfriend. She says: “If he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.” The closer it gets to spring 2017, however, the more emotional she becomes. “What if something happens?” she tells the camera in tears. “What if I don’t see him again?” And in this way, she becomes the real-life version of the wife who gets in the way of the plot.
Does she become annoying? After the doc was over, the first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “I know this is bad, but I didn’t like her much.”
That’s the moviegoer in us. Then you pull back, and you think, c’mon, she’s simply worried about what any of us would be worried about: the unnecessary risks loved ones take. Besides, she vastly improves the movie by creating a dilemma within the dilemma. She’s El Capitan, Jr.
The doc itself is beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting. I don’t do well with heights—just climbing the stairs of the Eifel Tower and looking down, my legs turned to jelly—so I could barely watch his free-solo ascent. It was like a horror movie to me. And this knowing he succeeds. Because if he didn’t, the doc wouldn’t have been made; or it would’ve been made way differently.
That said, I love the smile on his face as he passes each of the trouble spots, and, lickety split, keeps ascending. I love the joy of it. There’s humor, too. Halfway up, he crosses a flat ledge where someone’s been camped out for the night ... in a giant bunny costume. WTF? Alex breezes past him, hardly seeming to notice. One wonders which sight is actually odder: a dude in a bunny costume halfway up El Capitan, or a guy free-soloing up El Capitan? I think the bunny dude was more freaked.
Love the kicker, too. In the celebratory high afterwards, there's relief and respite for both Alex and Sanni. He doesn't have the task nagging at him and she doesn't have the worry that he might die tomorrow. And then in a post-climb interview, he talks up other challenges; maybe some free solo greater than El Capitan? And we see both the excitement in his eyes, and, in the background, her dawning realization that this isn't a one-off; that the horror will continue; that the problem isn't the plot but the man. Maybe that should be the end of every “wife urging husband away from the plot” movie. As I said, it's a thankless role.
Movie Review: Mid90s (2018)
“Mid90s,” written and directed by Jonah Hill, is a coming-of-age movie that took me back to my own coming of age.
It shouldn’t have. I turned 12 in the mid-70s not the mid-90s, in Minneapolis not LA, and definitely not around skateboarding culture. At Stevie’s age, I would’ve been writing and drawing comic books, not mastering moves on a board. I never wanted to be a rebel, or hang with them, particularly not anyone like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), all wild hair and attitude and not much else—one of two leaders of a rag-tag group that hang out in a skate shop and periodically rouse the rabble.
But here’s what took me back: reaching a certain age, 10, 12, and suddenly having to navigate shit you’re supposed to know but have no clue about. It’s generally stuff about girls, and sex, or about how to act with guys. What to say, what not to say, and when. What’s cool and what isn’t. What are the rules? Where are the rules? At such moments, ignorance isn’t bliss. It can make you the butt of jokes for years.
Your shit for their shit
Here’s an example from my childhood—probably around 6th grade. My friend Dan and I were walking along 54th Street toward Little General and Rexall’s Drugs, most likely to buy comic books. I think it was winter. It always seemed like winter back then. Dan, who was the same grade as me but older by a month, and who used the cutting remark “You’re too young to understand” too often, said he had a joke. He ran thumb and forefinger along the sides of his mouth, which was puckered like a gaping fish, and said, “Blower’s cramp. Get it?” I, of course, didn’t. I knew there was something about “blowing” that had something to do with ... girls? But I didn’t know what it was. Most times I would’ve just lied; I would’ve pretended to be more sophisticated than I was. But something in the quick way Dan said “Get it?” made me think otherwise. So I said no. “You don’t?” he asked in disbelief. No, I said, what is it? Eventually he had to own up it meant nothing. “It was just a test,” he said. I had passed. For now.
That’s Stevie (Sunny Suljic) here. The movie begins with a nasty beatdown from his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two live in a cramped house with their single, mostly absent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston, just four years from playing the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s affection in “Inherent Vice”), and they all seem isolated. Ian exudes inarticulate anger. Stevie is sweet but trapped; he’s looking for an out.
Why skateboarders? Is it because they seem to do what they want when they want? Would he have drifted toward them without the beatings from Ian? Either way, he does. He lingers in the skate shop, hangs on the outskirts of their conversation. The first to acknowledge him is the youngest, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who probably wants a protégé of his own. He wants someone beneath him. When Ray (Na-kel Smith), for example, admonishes Ruben for drinking all the water from the jug and tells him to go fill it up, Ruben gives the task to Stevie—who is delighted. It’s his in. It’s the preteen boy’s crush on older boys.
Ruben is the one forever telling Stevie he failed the test. Like saying “thank you”? What the fuck, dude? That’s for fags. And the skateboard he bought from his older brother? With the ’80s cartoon figure on it? What is he—a kid? That’s for fags, too.
There are other unspoken rules Stevie is trying to navigate—specific to the gang. Who gets nicknames and who doesn’t? Fuckshit is Fuckshit because he begins so many sentences with “Fuck, shit...” Fourth Grade (Ryder McGlaughlin), who spends more time filming than skating, is a bit on the dumb side. Stevie acquires the nickname “Sunburn” because he asks Ray if black dudes get sunburned. Ruben is mortified the question is asked, then more mortified that Ray doesn’t really seem to mind it; that it leads to this nickname, which seems like a badge of honor. That’s Ruben’s role: entrée for Stevie, eyeing him with jealousy forever after.
I like how this gang of kids, which seems monolithic from the outside, breaks down into individuals the more Stevie hangs with them. Fuckshit, with his light-brown skin and blonde curly hair, is the mouthy one, the stoner, the guy ready to fight. He’s probably the most affluent, too. He rebels because he can afford to. Ray can’t. Ray is looking to see what money can be made in skateboarding. He’s looking for a way out. He’s also the wisest. In a late-movie heart-to-heart, he tells Stevie:
A lot of the time, we feel that our lives are the worst. But I think that if you looked in anybody else's closet, you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit.
Cf., Ruben. They drop him off at a motel-like place but Stevie sees him bolt down the steps after he goes up them. Meaning he doesn’t really live there? Or he does but can’t return? Or won’t? We never find out.
I particularly like this aspect of “Mid90s”: The arc of the movie is Stevie slowly fitting in with a gang that’s slowly breaking apart.
Only if you’re really interested
Does it end too quickly? Did for me. I guess that’s a compliment (we want more) but it still isn’t (it wasn’t as fulfilling as it might’ve been). The car crash is done well. Fuckshit is driving, fucked up, and arguing with Ray; and Fourth Grade, who isn’t supposed to know any better, is the one to speak up: “Could you, like, pull over?” But it’s already too late. As soon as the words are out, the car is upended, on its side, and Stevie is in the hospital. His mom arrives to see the gang asleep in the waiting area. Does she soften toward them? Should she? Then the boys go into the room. They talk. Fourth Grade brings his movie, his video of them. They watch it.
It ends in a vacuum but in a way it began there, too. Did Stevie have any friends before? Usually when you make the leap to a new group, particularly a planned leap, as Stevie does here, there’s at least a friend you leave behind. We get no inkling of this. It’s just his abusive older brother, his absentee mom, and him. No friends, no school, no nothing. Kayla in “Eighth Grade” was like this, too. Don’t any junior high kids have friends as they make the leap toward older, cooler friends?
That said, I really love this movie. I think of the scene where the gang skateboards between traffic down the middle of an LA hill in the magic-hour light, with the Mamas and Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” on the soundtrack. The scene is reprised near the end with just Stevie and Ray, after their heart-to-heart, and to Morrissey’s “We’ll Let You Know”:
How sad are we?
And how sad have we been?
We‘ll let you know
We’ll let you know
Oh, but only if, you're really interested
The magic hour is gone, and what light is there is bruised. It’s aching.
Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The light bulb went off for me when I saw “Road to Perdition” starring Tom Hanks in 2002. At one point, Hanks’ character, a Chicago mobster, drives through downtown Chicago circa 1931, and it’s not a backdrop, and they’re not filming in neighborhoods that evoke the era. Through computer technology, they resurrected the past. “Oh,” I thought, “CGI isn’t limited to sci-fi futuristic stuff. It can restore history.”
In a more immediate way, director Peter Jackson has done that here.
In 2014, Imperial War Museums, a British institution, asked Jackson if he could create a documentary for the centenary of the end of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918. The museum had 100 hours of footage from the 1910s and 600 hours of interviews with surviving war vets from the ’60s and ’70s. To hear him tell it—in a half-hour “making of” doc that follows this 99-minute doc—he mulled it over for a while. He didn’t want to do it unless he could do something new.
The footage was silent, of course. It was old, scratched, and some of it was just copies of copies. Like most films of the era, it also looked comically sped-up. Our current standard is 24 frames per second. The standard back then was 16 frames a second, but Jackson soon discovered it wasn’t even that simple. Many film cameras were hand-cranked, so the speed depended upon how fast the cameraman twirled the lever. In order to bring them up to the current standard and look natural, each film had to be adjusted individually.
Ultimately, he and his team at Wingnut Studios tried an experiment: How good could they make a segment of film if they cleaned it up and adjusted the speed? And how about if they colorized it? Jackson is against colorizing movies generally, but that’s an artistic integrity argument; here, he wanted to see the men as they saw themselves.
The result is astonishing. It's the past restored.
Not in Kansas anymore
The title of the documentary comes from the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” about the men who died during World War I:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
According to IMDb, Jackson switched up the “grow not old” line to avoid a Yoda-ish cadence, but it also makes it more of a declaration, doesn’t it? It makes it more of a crime. Political leaders and emperors ensured that millions would not grow old; Jackson and his team brought them back to life.
Immediate thought as I was watching: Can we do this with other footage of the era? Baseball movies? Chaplin films? I assume we can. It’s just a matter of time and money and will. Mostly money. It just depends how much we care about the past. (Answer: not much, sadly.)
Some of the shots are truly astonishing: horses killed; men dying in trenches, covered in insects. Also the ordinary: the look upon soldiers as they realize they’re being filmed. As Jackson says in the post-doc, film was such a new medium, and the act of filming so rarely seen, that they didn’t know what to do. The tendency was to do what one did with photography: stand still. Waving at the camera wasn’t a thing yet. “Hi, mom,” was half a century away.
One young man—you can see him in the trailer—turns to his comrades and says with a smile, “Hey boys, here it comes. We’re in the pictures,” then laughs, and the work that went into that little bit, and all the audio in the doc, is equally astonishing. First, Jackson hired lip readers to figure out what was being said; then he and his team researched which outfit was what, and where its men were from; then he hired voice actors from that region.
As in the trailer, the movie begins with a small black-and-white box that expands until it fills the entire screen. But the footage is still a bit choppy, and it’s still in black and white. it’s only when we arrive at the battlefield that the full effect takes place—that we enter into their world. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz” in this way, but an Oz of blunt reality rather than fantasy.
With such a technological feat as this, so beautifully realized, and done pro bono, it would take a real asshole to quibble with it.
Here I go.
Again, from IMDb:
It was a deliberate choice not to identify the soldiers or battlegrounds as that would ground the film in too many facts and slow it down. Instead, the desire was to make this about the experience of being a soldier.
I think this was a mistake. Individuals, and individual stories, are lost. Everything becomes part of the mass. It’s like reading an oral history that’s been stripped of who stays what, and when, and with no overarching narrative. I’m a detail man; I wanted the details rather than the generalities. The details that Jackson worked on technologically should‘ve been worked on narratively.
I get, too, that Jackson had 600 hours of commentary to choose from, and he wanted to fit in what he could; he wanted us to hear their voices. But the narration winds up feeling somewhat relentless. I wanted a little more silence. I wanted to absorb more of what I was seeing. Ironic, given these are silent films.
A long way to Tukwila
Even so, if you have the opportunity to see “They Shall Not Grow Old,” don’t hesitate. It’s being parceled out in movie theaters—a week’s showing here, a day’s showing there, so blink and you miss it. Next show in Seattle is apparently January 21. No, not starting January 21. Just January 21. In December, Patricia and I drove all the way to Tukwila to see it; Seattle theaters were already booked.
I’m glad there’s such interest. Most of us forget the past too quickly; Americans are particularly bad at this. Jackson and his team have put it right in front of us. They’ve made ghosts of long ago seem you like or me. We’re in the pictures.
Movie Review: Aquaman (2018)
Hey, it’s not awful! Why isn’t it?
The first and biggest reason is Jason Momoa. He’s handsome, built like a rock (or The Rock), and he’s got a fun recklessness in his eyes. You imagine him as someone who most comes alive when doing dangerous things.
The second reason is the hero’s journey. OK, so it’s a stupid hero’s journey. Arthur Curry/Aquaman begins it a hero (single-handedly rescuing Russian sailors from a hijacked submarine), and ends it with a dull job (King of Atlantis), and the only reason he succeeds is because of weaponry. In the 1981 bomb, “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” the title character, recovering from an attack, is shooting his pistol but keeps missing the target; so Tonto suggests using silver for his bullets since silver is pure. My father back then: “Who knew the Lone Ranger used silver bullets because he was such a lousy shot?” You can ask a similar rhetorical question here: Who knew Aquaman needed his gold trident because he couldn’t win a fair fight with his half-brother?
Overall, too, Aquaman’s heroic journey is less journey than treasure hunt. Go here, do this, which will tell you to go there and do that, which will tell you ... etc. Arthur Curry’s journey takes him from the Sahara Desert to Sicily to the middle of the Atlantic and then through a wormhole to a pristine beach at the center of the Earth. What, you thought the center of the earth was fire and lava? Nah. More like Maui.
Something else that makes “Aquaman” not horrible? The villain isn’t exactly wrong. (Cf., “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Incredibles 2.”) Yes, Orm (Patrick Wilson), the next would-be ruler of Atlantis, makes it seem surface dwellers are attacking Atlantis in order to justify a war. But his first act is to create tidal waves all over the world that wash up all the garbage we dumped in the ocean. We get our trash back. Not a bad move. The movie should’ve lingered more on this garbage. It should’ve been food for thought as we shoveled popcorn into our pieholes, then dropped the buckets onto the sticky theater floor.
To the story. In 1985, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, CGIed well), queen of Atlantis, washes up on the rocks of a Maine lighthouse and is rescued by its lighthouse keeper, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison of “Once Were Warriors,” CGIed creepily), who nurses her back to health. Love and a child follow. But then soldiers of Atlantis find her, and she returns to the sea in order to keep secret her half-human kid. She's killed anyway for the transgression. The boy grows up motherless.
He also grows up to be Jason Momoa, all buff and tatted and half-fish. He can communicate with underwater creatures—demonstrated in a great scene at an aquarium when two boys try to pick on him and a giant shark almost breaks through the glass to take them on. An even better scene? He and his dad at a bar, and four or five toughs gather around asking if he’s “Aqua boy.” He stands and confronts them: “Aquaman,” he corrects. An ass-whupping seems imminent. Instead, the lead tough asks, “Can we get a selfie?” Then we see a series of selfies from the evening as men and Aquaman get deeper and deeper into their cups.
After that, the tidal wave, and the appearance of Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who wants AM to return Atlantis to reclaim his birthright and end the war. Doesn’t go as planned. He’s seen as an interloper, a bastard, and a mongrel. Orm challenges him to a duel, defeats him, and only doesn’t kill him because Mera springs into action and the two escape and begin their treasure hunt to get the original trident of Atlantis. So Aquaman can win the fight.
A few questions at this point:
- Why Maine? Momoa is from Hawaii, Morrison from an island in New Zealand. Why not one of those? Because the filmmakers needed cold and gray? Because cold and gray is cooler? Dudes, I live in Seattle. That shit ain't cool.
- What’s with all these kingdoms in comics? Why no democracies? Asgard, Themyscira, Wakanda, Atlantis. If they’re all so advanced, how come they're relying on kings and queens? Or are we wrong?
- And who’d want to rule Atlantis? Those dudes are assholes. I haven’t heard “half-breed” shouted so much since Cher sang it.
- And what’s with the hair? Millennia ago, Atlanteans were surface dwellers; then a power surge sank their kingdom and gave them the power to adapt. Yet everyone kept hair? Underwater? Is no one evolving? Is that why no democracy, either?
Another question: Shouldn’t they get weaker away from water? Like when walking in the desert? That’s part of the heroic journey but neither Aquaman nor Mera seem to suffer at all.
Just before the war with the crustaceans
In the center of the earth, Aquaman is reunited with Moms, who, sure, was destined for execution; but she survived. AM then gets the trident, and they all return for a giant battle Orm has started with ... no, not us. Not yet. It’s with the crustaceans. Yeah, doesn’t make sense in the movie, either. In the midst, Aquaman and Orm fight again, this time Aquaman wins (natch), but he shows mercy and spares Orm’s life (natch). And Arthur Curry is crowned the new King of Atlantis.
Wait, since Atlanna is alive, shouldn’t she be the ruler? Or is Atlantis a patriarchy on top of all its other problems?
“Aquaman,” directed by James Wan (“Saw,” “The Conjuring”), is monumentally stupid, but it has something. I guess it’s personality, which, as Jules said, goes a long way. The one thing the DC universe has done well—really the only thing it’s done well—is casting: Cavill as Superman, Gadot as Wonder Woman, Momoa here. Now if they can just work on literally everything else.
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.