A look at Vice (M)
Regular filmgoers won’t believe the work the make-up and hair stylists have done with Christian Bale for his latest movie. The well-known actor is barely recognisable as the White House ladder-climber Dick Cheney although in his early years as a Wyoming telecommunications linesman he’s clearly just C Bale.
Cheney’s not a very likeable person, young or older. But you get the feeling that director Adam McKay has portrayed the political supremacist perhaps more fairly than history will, in the long run. One thing’s in Cheney’s favour, though. He’s devoted to his family and that shines through later in the story when his youngest daughter comes out as gay.
But back to the beginning when the young Cheney stumbles about, frequently blind drunk.
His very intellectually smart wife Lynne (Amy Adams) hands down her ultimatum. Make something of your life or find someone else she trumpets.
So the failed college student Cheney manages to snag a White House internship. He becomes Donald Rumsfeld’s protégé and it’s from the senior man (Steve Carell) that Dick learns right wing real-politik: capitalism and freedom from legislative restraints.
Up the ladder climbs Dick even outstripping his old mentor Rumsfeld as he is installed as White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford. When Democrat Jimmy Carter turfs out the Republicans Cheney campaigns for a House seat representing Wyoming – and lands the gig. He’s the Wyoming House representative from 1978 to 1989.
All the while Lynne is by his side. She’s penned a number of volumes on American history by this stage while her husband, back in the White House, espouses new definitions of power: ‘unitary executive theory’. Simply put this means that whatever the president says or does as president is legal. How come? Well, he’s the president, reasons Cheney. And by extension that would include the vice-president which Cheney becomes through his hammered-out deal with George Bush junior (Sam Rockwell).
Director McKay has subtly levelled quite a few hard facts at Cheney’s door. As a tremendously powerful vice-president he might have been the chief supporter of the torture and rendition programmes which followed the 9/11 aeroplane attacks on New York’s twin towers. He also might have been the strategist who manipulated the (lack of) intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to justify 2003’s invasion of Iraq. But then again so, too, did Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. And was Cheney the mastermind who turned a relatively unknown Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi into a terrorist superstar. McKay airs all these albeit in a nuanced way.
Cheney has his own health problems through all this. He has a succession of heart attacks – five in all, even tumbling to the floor in the Capitol building at one stage – and eventually becomes a heart transplant patient. The anonymous donor Kurt (Jesse Plemons) adds his comments to the story throughout the film from when he’s giving his children a swing in the park, to carting groceries around a big store on a front-end loader and then to his time as a serviceman in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The donor’s comments come to an abrupt halt when he’s out jogging and is collected by a careless van driver. In real life Cheney has always requested that the donor’s name never be made public. So McKay has used Kurt as a fantasy narrative construct but it all melds in pretty well. Of course the heart transplant did take place. In 2012, to be exact.
Overall McKay has done a great job with this movie. It must be difficult to make a biopic about a living, and still quite powerful, public person.
There’s some irreverent passages and some quite funny moments, too. But there’s never a descent into derision or name-calling.