As in the last 30 minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas, Vice is the unusual extravagance that will have you watching through your fingers. Equally maddening and nauseating, writer-director Adam McKay’s messy Dick Cheney biopic is a must-see for historians and the politically interested alike.
Picking up in 1963, Dick’s (Christian Bale) alcoholism leads him to drop out of college at Yale. Returning home to Wyoming, he finds work as a powerline technician. Struggling with his arrests, wife Lynne (Amy Adams) threatens to leave him if he doesn’t become the man she was promised before they were married. Six years later, Dick is on his way to becoming that man, securing an internship with Congress. Working under then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Dick learns political savvy and becomes an invaluable rising star in the Republican Party.
Dick’s career ebbs and flows with the fate of the party. Over several decades, he becomes the sole representative to the House of Representatives for the state of Wyoming, Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush, and CEO of Halliburton, a multinational oil conglomerate. In 2000, Dick agrees to head the search for a running mate for presidential hopeful George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Dick puts potential candidates through a scrupulous process before eventually settling on the perfect candidate: himself. Lynne is skeptical of the position, but Dick negotiates with George W. to ensure that he will be the most powerful vice president of all time.
Rockwell and Bale embody George W. and Dick and are astonishing renditions of the former presidential ticket. McKay, famous for comedy classic Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and the ever-underrated The Big Short, should be given credit for subverting the traditional biopic formula, but going forward, he’ll have to walk the line separating style and schtick. Segments are narrated by a mystery character played by Jesse Plemons and a newscaster (Naomi Watts), but the division between the two is murky, and it’s not abundantly clear why McKay didn’t opt for one instead of both. The editing is often scattered, giving way to cutaways and obvious, gratuitous visual analogies (like a big cat pouncing on its prey) a hair too frequently.
Like The Big Short, Vice‘s subjects strike a fittingly nihilistic tone. It’s unclear whether this was a measured approach based on the absurdity of the games being played by the characters in both films or just McKay’s standard approach. We’ll have to wait and see what else the director has up his sleeve before reaching a verdict. Regardless, Vice has entered the political conversation in an ideal time. Revisionist history is being written about the Bush administration as I type. Ten years ago, liberals called George W. Bush a war criminal. A decade later, he’s a cute old man with a paintbrush. Bush-era political agents like Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, and David Addington (the latter two played admirably by Justin Kirk and Don McManus, respectively) are conveniently being pushed into the collective amnesia because more sinister villains have taken their place. Vice determines that one could not exist without the other.
The dots are explicitly connected from the Republican Party of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush to today’s party-over-country, Russia-preferred institution led by Donald Trump. McKay holds the audience’s hand all the way through—a necessary evil in this case. The left is customarily unwilling to create this black-and-white, masturbatory content that the right is prone to. Early in the movie, Dick, serving on Donald Rumsfeld’s staff and still learning about the interworkings of Washington, asks Donald, “Don, what do we stand for?” Donald, astounded by Dick’s earnest inquiry, breaks into rapturous laughter. To McKay, this is an emblematic response; for the Republican Party, the response to this question has remained the same for the 50 years separating Nixon and Trump—the acquisition of power. You can decide for yourself whether this is self-serving or just an accurate retelling of American history. Some villains, McKay indicates, are not worthy of the benefit of the doubt.