L&D took advantage of some Marcus Rewards to see Vice on bargain Tuesday, and after some minor hiccups with the cashier, we made it in to see an alarming trailer of an upcoming Topher Grace film, Breakthrough. In good trailer tradition, we now know the plot pretty much exactly, and L&D will likely be able to skip that one altogether.
Of course, we were there to see Vice, writer-director Adam McKay’s portrait of former Secretary of Defense and Vice President, Dick Cheney, and we thought we pretty much knew what was going to happen in this movie, too. So, really, we were there to see if Christian Bale’s portrayal is all that it’s cracked up to be — it is, he’s brilliant and gets it right, the pause, the sneer. Bale is not the only big, big star here, with Amy Adams playing Lynne Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. Adams is very good and Carrell starts out really strong and fades a bit, while Rockwell doesn’t really get much to work with beyond something just above an SNL-type portrayal. Good work if you can get it.
The movie is fine, really, funny in parts — the first end-credits bit was pretty clever — but ultimately it turns into a polemical hit piece on Cheney. This is somewhat amusing because the film makers were obstinate that this was based on the facts. Even if that were true, which it probably isn’t, there are many facts that are omitted, on the one hand, and many connections that are somewhere between tenuous and ridiculous.
On the first part, consider the complete omission of the Iraq war under President George H.W. Bush. It was during that war that Cheney and General Colin Powell emerged as a tandem with real star power. Here’s the take of Slate’s, Fred Kaplan, who certainly knows plenty about Cheney’s career:
The film …barely mentions the first Gulf War, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, when Cheney was secretary of defense. This is no small matter: The fact that the elder Bush won that war but left Saddam Hussein in power had an influence on how the younger Bush and Cheney viewed the second Iraq war a decade later.
Another reason for McKay’s brush-off of the first Gulf War may be that dealing it would have forced him to confront the fact that, even by the estimate of his critics (including me), Cheney oversaw that war—and handled his duties as defense secretary broadly—with open-minded professionalism. McKay begins the film by having his narrator say that when Cheney became vice president, nobody knew much about him. In reality, he’d emerged from the Gulf War an admired celebrity. In his many press interviews at the time, he came off as an emblem of cool competence…
This is why so many people who observed Cheney under Bush Sr. (including me) were so stunned and puzzled by his fanatical turn under Bush Jr. What changed? Had the three heart attacks blocked some of the oxygen to his brain? Was it the sheer scare of Sept. 11? Was it his belief that, in the wake of its Cold War victory and the Soviet Union’s implosion (an important contextual event the film ignores), the United States could get away with a more aggressive foreign policy and, therefore, should? In the film, from the time of his ascent to high power on, he undergoes no change and thus there’s no need to explain it.
That is my emphasis in spots, because I really couldn’t agree more with those quotations. I lived in DC during the bulk of the first Gulf War, and remember watching the Cheney-Powell show with some legitimate DC insiders. He was masterful and definitely admired from both sides of the aisle, regardless of what your thoughts on that war were. That entire Kaplan piece is a pretty good summation of my view on the “facts” in this one.
As far as the second point goes — some of the conclusions the film makers seem to draw about Cheney’s influence — it seems unlikely that Cheney is responsible for political polarization, ISIS, global climate change, the California wildfires, and the rise of Fox News, but I suppose it’s possible. The expansiveness of the indictments and the black-hat, white-hat nature of the narrative is degrading to those in the audience with cerebral capabilities.
In the end, you might enjoy it no matter your politics. I talked to someone today who said that their conservative father thought the movie was “satire,” rather than a biopic. It has its moments. It certainly has more than it’s share of star firepower.