In a couple of hours from the time I write this, President Donald Trump will have a televised speech focusing on the border wall he hopes to build. This speech, as many of his other actions have done, will divide families, friends and the nation.
The movie “Vice” will have the same reaction, although I doubt many conservative viewers will see it. Our local theater wasn’t banking on a full house either, as the film was showing in a corner theater that might be the smallest one they have. Considering there were maybe 15 of us in that showing, they probably figured right.
“Vice” is the tale of Dick Cheney’s rise to power and the ruthless, vindictive way he manipulated the country and the world, at least according to the filmmakers. The movie is uber aware of the fact it’s got the power to further divide its audience. There’s a brief post-credit scene in which a focus group is basically acting out the behavior of the nation, with conservative members flinging liberal pejoratives like “libtard” or “snowflake” — honestly, I can’t remember, but you get the gist — and liberal members talking about the orange Cheeto that had been elected to the highest office in the land.
I didn’t go to the movie for political reasons or for the award nominations it’s garnered — Christian Bale won a Golden Globe on Sunday night for his portrayal of Dick. No, I was curious about the film, but I was still a little bit worried I’d be bored. (I was a political science major in college, but it’s been a very long time since politics were at the forefront of my brain.)
I seriously underestimated director Adam McKay, who also wrote the film. “Vice” is a funny, fast-moving tale that takes us from Dick’s youth as a drunken rabble rouser through his political rise to power, eventually ending at vice president under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). It’s a bit depressing at times, but it’s still funny in that black comedy, laugh or cry-out-loud kind of way.
Amy Adams plays Lynne Cheney, a woman as power hungry and determined as her husband. In 1963, after she’s picked Dick up from the drunk tank, Lynne tells him that he must do what she can’t. It was a time when women couldn’t hold office, run companies, etc., and she tells him that he must do all the things she is unable to do. It’s not her ambition that holds her back, but her sex. Whether it’s her threats of leaving him or simply the fact he realizes he’s a loser, Dick embarks on a different path. It’s one that will lead him to intern for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and eventually take him up through various positions from White House chief of staff to Wyoming’s congressional representative to secretary of defense.
According to the film, Dick picks his party based on his appreciation of Rumsfeld’s charisma, candor and lack of pretense. Together, the two would start wars, kill countless Iraqi soldiers and civilians, destroy careers and do whatever they wanted, until a softer, gentler, more politically correct attitude took hold. When either Dick or Rumsfeld had power, each made sure the other had a place near him and vice versa. Of course, their friendship was only strong as long as each man proved himself useful to the other.
The four actors I’ve named so far all give masterful performances. Many have found it hard to believe that Bale is under the bald fatness that is Dick Cheney. And, of course, Adams and Carell knock it out of the park in every role they take on. Their characters never really adapt or grow, but they’re still fun to watch. Lynne Cheney takes each of her husband’s successes as if they were her own, and in a way, they are, as she’s behind him every step of the way. There’s a bit of a who’s who in the rest of the cast with cameos by Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina. Jesse Plemons has a prominent role as the film’s narrator and “family” member.
However, it’s not just Dick Cheney’s professional life that is on display. The film also delves into his personal life, including his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) wreaking a bit of career homicide when she comes out as gay, and his mother-in-law’s mysterious drowning. These moments aren’t at the forefront of the film, but they add some depth to the man, as we watch Dick joke with daughters only to be chastised by Lynne for teaching them to be “silly” or see him tell his father-in-law — who possibly killed his wife — to stay away from Lynne and his daughters permanently.
All in all, “Vice” is an engaging experience, one that frequently amazes with its breaking of the fourth wall, irreverent title cards, off-the-wall narration, Shakespearean soliloquies and much more. It really feels like McKay and the rest of his team throw everything but the kitchen sink at you. And, it keeps everything interesting and lively. How much that works for you is likely a matter of political affiliation and storytelling preferences; but, considering this is primarily a work of art and not a political manifesto, it is far more watchable than many historical dramas, even if it is ultimately less of an achievement than this week’s other film, “The Favourite.” Consider yourself warned.