There is a moment in “Vice” that attempts to illustrate the smooth, inoffensive tone that allows Dick Cheney to get away with saying the most outrageous things.
It’s the mid-‘70s and Cheney, serving as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, is asked his thoughts on some topic or another – to which he responds with a suggestion to put wigs on a line of penises in a kind of puppet show. The others in the Oval Office, including Ford, act as if this is the most wonderful idea they’ve ever heard.
It’s too bad that “Vice” itself didn’t offer more outrageousness along those lines. In fact, it’s too bad that “Vice” didn’t actually illustrate such a puppet show and have everyone react with back-slapping approval. The film tells an almost unbelievable story – that of Cheney’s rise from drunken Wyoming ne’er-do-well to the most powerful vice-president in history, one whose “one-percent doctrine” still dominates our terrorism-frightened times – but, from my perspective, it needed to be even more absurd, less controlled, more over the top.
In fact, “Vice” tells its story with surprising restraint, an echo of Cheney’s gritted-jaw intonation.
It’s a politician’s rise-to-power story you’ve probably heard before. In Cheney’s case, it begins with flunking out of Yale and getting a DUI; then, driven as much by his wife, Lynne, as his own ambition he gets on the straight and narrow and earns a spot as a congressional aide, deciding to join the staff of the brash Donald Rumsfeld, whom he follows to the White House during the Ford administration. Then there’s a stint as a Wyoming congressman before joining the George H.W. Bush administration as defense secretary.
The movie glosses over the Persian Gulf War (a mistake; though the film starts out saying that Cheney was next to unknown when he became VP, for anyone paying attention he was already a respected hand thanks to his cabinet service, if overshadowed at the time by Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf) and soon enough Cheney is George W.’s Number Two as we slam headlong into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sure, he has a questionable “presidents can do no wrong” philosophy and questionable colleagues (I was pleased to see so much attention given to “Cheney’s Cheney,” the grim David Addington), but if it weren’t for writer-director Adam McKay’s occasional comic interludes, you’d almost confuse it for a standard biopic, not a polemic.
Maybe that’s McKay’s point. Maybe he thought elements of Cheney’s biography were already outrageous enough. But the fact that the film is determined to adhere to the basic facts – even if viewed through McKay’s obviously liberal and pissed-off lens – works to its detriment.
I can’t help but think of a review I read not long after seeing “Network” on Broadway a couple weeks ago: the reviewer was upset that the play played up “The Howard Beale Show” at the expense of the May-December relationship between Faye Dunaway’s programmer and William Holden’s news executive, which gave the movie ballast. I thought the play didn’t go far enough; it should have gone whole-hog into “The Howard Beale Show” and essentially dropped the romance, which seemed pointless on stage in a way it never was in Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay. (It helped that Chayefsky had actors’ champion Sidney Lumet helming the movie, and powerful performances from Holden and Dunaway, instead of Ivo van Hove’s pyrotechnic stage direction and Tony Goldwyn’s milquetoast performance in the Holden role.)
(Of course, this same reviewer claimed that the stage “Network” “ruined” the movie, which – given that the movie is its own thing and very much available to anyone who wants to watch – is complete bullshit.)
It’s a shame that “Vice” doesn’t offer the blazing, angry energy of a “Howard Beale Show” because it features some terrific performances. Christian Bale is amazing as Cheney; both he and his makeup person should earn Oscar nominations. Amy Adams is suitably steely as Lynne Cheney, and the rest of the cast generally elevates their roles above caricature, for better or worse.
Yet, despite my admiration for parts of “Vice,” I left it disappointed. Aside from its weird restraint, the film often violates the “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling. Too much is presented as exposition (often from narrator Jesse Plemons, who has his own part in the story revealed late) and not enough as action. And if you’re going to have McKay’s angry viewpoint, you may as well leave facts behind and go straight into satire. Hell, change the main character’s name to Chuck Delaney while you’re at it. We know who you’re talking about.
Look at it this way: In 20 years, someone will want to make a film about the presidency of Donald Trump. (Assuming the world is still around and not a smoldering radioactive mess, that is.) The truth is already wackier than any work of fiction could ever produce. I mean, dismissive porn stars? Relationships with Russia? Communicating with bizarrely capitalized tweets? The he-can-do-no-wrong vibe of Trump’s followers? It’s a story that will absolutely resist straight documentary, unless you’re telling it for PBS. If you’re Hollywood, it will have to make “Dr. Strangelove” look like a Cold War training film.
“Dr. Strangelove,” in fact, would have been a nice model for “Vice.” In “Vice,” there no equivalent to Keenan Wynn threatening Peter Sellers with having “to answer to the Coca-Cola Company” as he shoots a Coke machine for its change, or George C. Scott shrugging that a nuclear holocaust might not prevent the U.S. “from getting our hair mussed.”
No, instead of silliness strapped under Stanley Kubrick’s diffidence, with “Vice” we get anger trapped under Dick Cheney’s monotone. So much for McKay getting the last laugh.