There’s the film, which is excellent, and then there’s the timing of its release, which is a fascinating topic in its own right.
Let’s start with what we see on screen, which is quite simply a searing insight into the abuse of power. But how are we to treat this examination of former United States Vice President, Defence Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney? Right from the start, writer director Adam McKay tells us that while the characters in his film are real, getting to the facts has been difficult. And in a fascinating post credits scene, he reinforces this by emphasising how views of his film will differ, depending on your own political leanings.
So Vice is not a straight out drama, but neither is it a documentary. It’s an essay, arguing a political point, with the help of actors, a narrator, and the use of actual news footage. Liberals may see it an essential reminder of the evils of the recent past, and conservatives may dismiss it as propaganda. It’s no surprise that the reviews for Vice have ranged widely. For the record, I think it’s a great film.
Writer McKay takes us back to Dick Cheney’s student days, when Cheney, a drinker, flunked Yale. It’s his girlfriend (later wife) Lynne who confronts him and challenges him to do better. Lynne remains behind the scenes of the man who worked behind the scenes. For the rest of the film, Cheney’s rise to political influence is due to this husband and wife teamwork. Both characters are shown to be utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. And that cause is pure right wing politics: small government, small taxes, a devotion to military might and the will to use it. The means to achieve this end is the fascinating, and repelling, part of the story. We see the willingness to over-use presidential power, to invade countries, sanction torture, conceal activities from Congress (even to have a secret email network and then to have millions of emails deleted)
Christian Bale disappears and we see only Dick Cheney. It’s a masterful performance because it doesn’t seem like a performance. Bale’s characterisation is so good that it feels as if we are indeed watching a documentary. Amy Adams is similarly impressive as Lynne Cheney. A great deal of the strength of the film comes from the sympathetic treatment this pair of actors manage to convey, for all that many in the audience will be revulsed by them. They are loyal and loving to each other, and to their children. This is no more clearly illustrated than in the scene where their daughter Mary tells her parents she is gay. The Cheneys support Mary and subsequent decisions they take are influenced by their desire to protect her from the public gaze. It’s only later in life when their second daughter, Liz, reveals her own politicial ambitions that the parents’ loyalty to Mary wavers.
So the film makers here deserve credit for giving us light and shade to the story. I found Vice a compelling story, with its leads giving memorable performances. But I was not so impressed by some others in the cast. Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld, veered too close to parody for my liking.
Vice would be worth watching at any time, but its release right now raises other questions. Not just because there is a Republican president currently in the White House who behaves in a way which draws vitriol and ridicule the world over, but because Trump’s behaviour might just make some conservative folk hanker for the good old days of George W. That hankering may have been honed in recent months with Bush’s well-received eulogy for his father, George H. W. The appeal of “Dubya” may also have been heightened by his recent appearances on American talk shows, where he’s appeared to discuss his paintings of American war veterans, now published in book form. In these interviews he’s been laid back, self deprecating, and seemingly self aware. Maybe not such a bad bloke after all. Maybe we’ll forget about that invasion of Iraq, justified on the erroneous claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
What Vice does is shake us out of those thoughts, and remind us of the sins of those times. If anything, Cheney’s portrayal as a Machiavellian schemer, the ultimate inside man, both influential and powerful, makes the blundering Donald Trump seem rather ineffectual, for all the offense he causes.