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‘Vice’ handles Cheney’s story with attention to detail, humor

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‘Vice’ handles Cheney’s story with attention to detail, humor

Benjamin Huang and Jevan Yu

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A group of working-class men clad in jeans and overalls gathers around a fallen colleague by the side of a lonely road in a vast field of dead grass. The man on the ground whimpers in pain, his legs jutting out from under his body at odd angles after he falls from one of the telephone poles the men are working to install.

“Back to work!” the overseer cries. The rest of the group departs, save one. The camera pans up to reveal a young, slightly paunchy Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who continues to stare inquisitively at the fallen man.

“You got a problem, Cheney?” the overseer growls.

“No, sir,” he replies, and turns away.

Was this scene intended to showcase the seeds of disregard for human life that would blossom fully within Cheney as he ascended the political ranks to become vice president? Is it a metaphorical statement about the relationship between Cheney and the American people? Does the fallen man represent us? Does Cheney? This scene is only one thread of the rich, complex tapestry that is “Vice” (2018), a political dramedy directed by Adam McKay that is nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Christian Bale) and Best Director.

“Vice” attempts to bring the life of Cheney, the 46th vice president of the United States, to the big screen, tracing his rise from a college dropout to one of the most powerful political figures of his time. The film’s real-life counterpart is known for his unprecedented exercise of the vice presidential position, including his role in organizing the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He left office with a record-breakingly low 13 percent approval rating.

Taking center stage in this gallows-humor burlesque is Bale, who by the end of the film has ballooned almost past the point of recognition. His chiseled muscles of “The Dark Knight” days are replaced with a rotund gut and jowls. His hair becomes limp and white. Such a remarkable transformation deserves credit.

Bale’s performance as Cheney is subtle and understated. Despite never raising his voice beyond a breathy growl, his countenance radiates the unmistakable impression that he’s the one in charge in the room, the dark star around which sycophants orbit. Co-starring with Bale is Amy Adams, who plays Cheney’s wife Lynne. If Dick is reserved and quiet, Lynne is the Lady Macbeth of the pair. She berates young Cheney out of his alcoholic spiral, campaigns for him after he is hospitalized for a heart attack and helps him plot his schemes.

The film occasionally jumps between places and times briskly, but handy intertitles identify the time and place for most scenes, as well as name the myriad political figures who intermittently appear, including Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) and Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan). There is snide humor in the script, much of which comes from Kurt, the fictional narrator of Cheney’s life. It’s well-placed enough that it doesn’t detract from the lawbreaking and rights-violating that’s happening on screen. The film’s score, composed by Nicholas Britell, is sweeping and orchestral — to be expected in a film about political players vying for power and trampling others in the process.

The most complex aspect of the film is its treatment of its subject. How does one even attempt to shoot a film about a politician so secretive that in the first intertitle, the director openly admits that “we did our f****** best”? Perhaps it is fitting that McKay reportedly never included the Cheney family in the planning process, and that Bale never sat down with Cheney in person.

Either way, Vice offers plenty of political material for some viewers to fume about. In one particular scene, we see a montage of a clerk reading off proposed legislation in the House of Representatives, interspersed with shots of Cheney’s finger repeatedly slamming down on a red button marked “NAY.” McKay makes it extremely clear that he considers Cheney responsible directly or indirectly for civilian deaths, kidnappings, torture, the rise of the Islamic State and a whole host of other atrocities (and, almost as a final, spiteful kick in the teeth, the film closes with Cheney breaking the fourth wall and delivering a House-of-Cards-esque monologue asserting that he harbors no regret for his actions). 

But here and there, sympathetic bits of Cheney’s life shine through. We see him teaching his daughters to fish. He is the first to comfort his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) when she reveals that she is lesbian. And finally, with Cheney in a hospital bed, embracing his family members, we see real grief and sadness play across his face for perhaps the first time.

McKay artfully weaves together these two conflicting viewpoints into a portrait of a blue-collar frat boy from Illinois who navigates Washington’s turbulent political waters to the top, breaking more than a few eggs in the process. “Vice” is a fine film, undoubtedly more than the sum of its excellent parts (though its performances alone do not make it worthy of Best Picture) and ultimately, it is up to the viewers to decide whether or not to condemn or acquit the man onscreen. But if the film’s ending monologue is any indication of Cheney’s true feelings, he probably won’t care what you think.

“Vice”

2 hours, 12 minutes

R, for violent images/language

Directed by Adam McKay

Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell

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