There’s a point early on in “Vice” when a young Dick Cheney asks then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld what it is they believe. It’s a seemingly earnest question from a wet-behind-the-ears political neophyte attempting to formulate a worldview. Rumsfeld laughs in Cheney’s face. The cynical answer speaks volumes. Men like these have no use for beliefs and principles. They only get in the way of their true pursuit: power.
The new biopic from director Adam McKay paints the former vice president and architect of the Iraq War as a craven political animal. He was neither a patriot nor an ideologue; rather, he craved power for power’s sake and wielded it as he saw fit. It’s a nihilistic perspective that resonates across much of the film as it traces Cheney’s political ascent from his n’e’r-do-well days in rural Wyoming to the vice presidency, where he played puppet master to President George W. Bush.
Like McKay’s previous film, “The Big Short,” he once again attempts to tackle a serious topic with a comedic sensibility. Where that film presented a trenchant and wry account of the 2008 financial crisis, “Vice” lacks a coherent thesis beyond the blatantly obvious: Dick Cheney is a bad person.
It’s not hard to view “Vice” as a horror movie. Cheney is portrayed as taciturn and unassuming, pensive and calculating. Interstitial scenes of him fly fishing function as a metaphor for his patient nature, like a predator stalking his prey. The film’s narrator describes Cheney as the type of person who had a talent for making the unthinkable sound mundane. Whether justifying torture or expanding executive power, he presented his case in a way that always sounded measured and reasonable. Dick Cheney is the banal face of evil — a monster disguised as a bureaucrat.
McKay does attempt to complicate the character of Cheney by giving us a sympathetic glimpse into his relationship with wife Lynne and daughters Liz and Mary. It humanizes him without letting him off the hook; no tender moment with his family — from love for Lynne to his acceptance of Mary’s homosexuality — is enough to erase his blood-soaked legacy as a public servant.
However, such nuance struggles to shine through due to the film’s sloppy pacing. Scenes frenetically jump between the past and present without adding much to the overall narrative. A montage toward the end that attempts to link Cheney to the rise of Donald Trump is trite and reductive. While it’s easy to connect those dots — the Bush administration absolutely paved the way for Trump — the seeds of the Trump circus were sown long before Cheney set foot in the White House.
Fortunately, a strong cast is this film’s saving grace. Christian Bale’s transformation into Cheney is uncanny; he disappears into the character so effectively that it’s easy to forget you’re not watching the real Cheney.
Amy Adams gives a solid performance as Lynne Cheney. A political force in her own right, she is portrayed as a source of strength for her husband. Steve Carell, meanwhile, does a convincing Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney’s mentor-turned-subordinate, Carell’s Rummy is every bit the prickly, unlikable jerk history has revealed him to be.
Those looking for any new insight into what makes Dick Cheney tick, won’t find it in “Vice.” Any attempt to portray him as sympathetic is a feint on McKay’s part. By the film’s end, we’re still left with a snarling boogey man who expresses zero regrets for how he’s adversely affected world history. And while that may be all there is to Dick Cheney, I’m not sure I needed to spend 132 minutes being reminded of that unpleasant fact.