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In Theaters: VICE (2018)

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VICE
(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Adam McKay. Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Fay Masterson, John Hillner, Paul Yoo, Joseph Beck, Tony Graham. (R, 132 mins)

ANCHORMAN director and Will Ferrell BFF Adam McKay took the leap to "serious filmmaker" with 2015's THE BIG SHORT, an angry and irreverent autopsy of the housing market collapse. He takes the same approach and nets less consistent results with the Dick Cheney biopic VICE, which covers the life of George W. Bush's vice president from his days as a hard-drinking college dropout and all-around fuck-up in 1963, through the events of 9/11 to his heart transplant in 2012. Regardless of how one feels about Cheney and where you stand politically, the one thing everyone can agree on in these more-divisive-than-ever times is that Christian Bale completely disappears onscreen and all you see is Dick Cheney. Sporting Oscar-worthy makeup and an extra 45-50 lbs, the Oscar-winning actor, known for his startling transformations in past films like THE MACHINIST, THE FIGHTER, and AMERICAN HUSTLE, absolutely becomes Cheney. Bale carries VICE on his shoulders, and it's a good thing he does, because without the level of obsessive, Day-Lewisian dedication in his performance/metamorphosis, the film's shortcomings and inconsistencies would be a lot more glaring than they already are.





Counting Ferrell and Brad Pitt among its producers, VICE is entertaining, but McKay too often succumbs to Michael Moore agitprop with all the subtlety of a jackhammer or, perhaps, Ron Burgundy. Tonally, it's all over the place, with the grim seriousness of 9/11 juxtaposed with the kind of meta jokes that wouldn't have been out of place on something like MR. SHOW or FUNNY OR DIE (like a focus group stopping the movie to address its liberal bias). There's a ruthless, Lady Macbeth quality to Lynne Cheney, played here by Amy Adams, leading to Adams and Bale playing an entire scene in emphatic, scenery-chewing Shakespearean dialogue. McKay also takes the story into a hypothetical direction about 40 minutes in, just prior to Cheney accepting an offer to be Bush's VP where he, Lynne, and their extended family live happily ever after as historical footnotes,  never to be heard from again as an inspiring score cue swells and the closing credits begin rolling before abruptly resetting and bringing the film back to reality. There's a scattershot, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to VICE that's worked for McKay in the past (ANCHORMAN, THE OTHER GUYS) and has also completely backfired (ANCHORMAN 2). It splits the difference here because it is funny, but the comedy only spotlights the fact that VICE is never sure what it wants to be. Bale is diving into this and losing himself in the way he deftly captures everything about Cheney physically and psychologically, while Adams is stuck playing a one-dimensional Lynne Cheney who's defined almost exclusively by her shrewd opportunism and the Cheney image (when their daughter Mary, played by Alison Pill, comes out as gay, it's Dick who immediately embraces her and offers his support while Lynne stands there, already questioning how this affects Dick's political career). Others are doing convincing impressions that look like SNL on a good night, like Steve Carell's obnoxious and loathed-throughout-DC Donald Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry's Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan's Paul Wolfowitz, and Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush, seen here as an easygoing goofball who only seems to be in politics to earn his dad's respect.


There is a clever framing device involving an onscreen narrator (Jesse Plemons), and the story jumps back and forth through the years, chronicling Cheney's time as a protege of presidential adviser Rumsfeld in the pre-Watergate Nixon White House, and his eventual return as White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) in the 1975 "Halloween Massacre," a gig he gets after swooping in to scavenge for table scraps left by everyone tainted by the Watergate fiasco. He's also the Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush and the film glosses over his tenure as CEO of Halliburton before he's persuaded to be George W. Bush's running mate. Throughout VICE, Cheney is accurately depicted as a Machiavellian mover and shaker, fixated on finding loopholes and reinterpretations to skirt around the Constitution and the law to find ways to grant the executive branch previously untapped levels of power, secrecy, and unaccountability. He's always working behind the scenes, quietly plotting, and never drawing attention to himself, qualities that come into play when he manipulates the younger Bush into letting him take on a much more significant role in policy and day-to-day operations than VPs have historically played ("The president and I have an understanding," he says whenever someone asks him if he's overstepping his boundaries).


The film's second half focuses almost entirely on the post 9/11 era, with the the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, "enhanced interrogation," Cheney's vengeful outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, and other decisions that resonate to this day (the infamous incident where Cheney shot a guy in the face is also shown, along with a reminder that the only apology that ever came from it was from the victim to Cheney), but therein lies the core problem with VICE: you're not going to leave the theater knowing anything you didn't already know going in. And to that end, it's rather shallow and superficial, and lacking the focused rage of THE BIG SHORT (the most vicious jab is aimed not at Dick Cheney, but at the apathetic and easily-distracted general public, and it comes at the very end, so stick around for that stinger that comes early in the closing credits). It's a triumph of makeup and a testament to Christian Bale's many gifts as an actor and his complete devotion to his craft. He makes efforts to show Cheney's human side and doesn't play him a cartoonish Bond villain, but a long, "no apologies" monologue near the end might make you wonder if this wouldn't have made a more insightful film if it was a one-man show like James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman in 1975's GIVE 'EM HELL, HARRY! or Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's 1984 film SECRET HONOR.

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