“You chose me, and I did what you asked.”
Vice is a retelling of the political rise of former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), from his Wyoming roots with wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), to his entry into Republican politics. After Texas Governor George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) picks Cheney to be his Republican running mate in the 2000 presidential election, Cheney begins to use his influence to reshape the power of the Executive office, and by extension his own, reshaping the country and the world.
Thematically, Vice is a depiction of blind, unquenchable ambition. What the film does admirably is extend this examination of the character trait not just toward its namesake Vice President Dick Cheney, but also to his wife Lynne. The Dick Cheney whom we first meet at the start of Vice is not the manipulate, Machiavellian figure whom we’ve come to know through modern American politics. Instead, the Cheney of the early 60s is a blue collar construction worker and drunkard, who has flunked out of Yale. It is his then girlfriend Lynne who presents Cheney with an ultimatum; shape up into a man worthy of her time and investment, or she moves on to another eligible suitor. During this conversation, Lynne mentions the gender politics of the day and their role in her decision-making. As a woman, Lynne cannot become a corporate CEO or President herself. Therefore, it is up to her male partner to enter these spaces and attain success that she cannot reach herself. Lynne’s strategy for finding a suitor through whom she can live vicariously and count on for support is indicative of the traditional struggles of women in our society but also a peek into the lust for power that would come to define the Cheney family.
The other inescapable aspect of Vice as a film is its historical accounting of modern American politics, drawing a straight line from Nixon to Reagan to our current body politic. What struck me was that this depiction covered what has always been in my eyes a fatal mistake of American policy reaching back to the end of the Civil War, affecting our country to this very day. Much of the cabal that constituted the Cheney wing of the George W. Bush White House were Nixon administration alumni. They made their bones and gained their experience in a Presidential administration known for corruption and that infamously imploded in scandal. While some of the major players in that administration saw some jail time, others such as Rumsfeld and Cheney did not and went on to continue serving in American politics. Even those that did see time in a cell such as G. Gordon Liddy were not fully extricated from our national politics and returned in some form or fashion as if nothing ever happened. This treating of serious crimes against the country with kid gloves and second chances can be traced back to the Civil War where traitors were integrated back into society instead of receiving harsher punishments. Of course, these Confederate veterans eventually regained power in the American south, instituting state sponsored terrorism against its black citizenry for a century, the effects of which the country still struggles to deal with.
And so, like their ideological brethren, the conservatives of the Nixon era were left to their own devices and allowed to linger, surviving to wreak havoc on the American political system just over twenty-five years later. And true to the aforementioned American precedent, neither Cheney nor anyone else was really held to account for their follies following 9/11, with President George W. Bush and his administration enjoying some measure of redemption from liberals themselves during the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump. But President Trump is simply the logical conclusion of the choices America made post-9/11. The embrace of authoritarianism and its enforcers like law enforcement, the further embrace of the military industrial complex, sanctioning of racism and bigotry against entire ethnic and religious groups. This injection of acceptable hatred and government strong-arming as a way of responding to 9/11 was always framed as just extending to that moment in time, but a genie cannot be put back inside its bottle. Once the hysteria from terror faded, that toxic energy the country embraced had to be redirected somewhere. And that it has, with the embrace of authoritarianism and worship of law enforcement taking the form of Ferguson and Baltimore and the sanctioning of racism and bigotry simply transferring from Muslims to tent cities for Latino children.
But alas, as Vice shows, you can only take note of the history and extrapolate from it that 10-15 years from now, those Trump alumni, and perhaps Trump himself, will also enjoy some revisionist history with white liberals (yes, it’s mostly white liberals who are so quick to forgive white conservatives for their transgressions and yes, that matters) pining for the days when he was in office; it was only one year ago Sean Spicer was welcomed with open arms to the Emmy Awards. This historical pattern of white conspirators being quickly forgiven and given second chances for inflicting catastrophic harm, particularly against non-whites both in America and abroad, is indicative of why these sorts of things happen in America so regularly, which Vice lays out perfectly. As long as the harm posed by Robert E. Lee, Donald Rumsfeld, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is viewed as a theoretical though exercise and not an existential threat toward real people, these forces will always arise with regularity and minorities forced to try to come out on the other side unscathed. Dick Cheney and his allies were mollified, allowed to fester unchallenged until the consequences of doing so ballooned out of control. And ultimately, this is something that the American people must accept and deal with head on. Vice debuted to mixed reviews with many of its critics citing the film as being condescending toward its audience, both in its depiction of history and the blame it places on them for enabling the rise of Cheney and company. Director Adam McKay perfectly addresses this in a closing monologue from Cheney that is quoted at the beginning of this review: “You chose me, and I did what you asked.” The United States government is a representative democracy; its elected officials and their ensuing actions reflect the populace that voted to install them. Acknowledging the part that the American people played in their ascension is not hatred or condescension, it’s accountability.
Christian Bale submits yet another transformative performance in an illustrious career full of them. Bale changes his voice and body to completely become Dick Cheney, disappearing into the role and becoming an entirely new person. At each stage of Cheney’s life, Bale convincingly embodies who Dick Cheney was at that time and naturally evolves along with the character as he evolves as a person and politico throughout the film’s story. Amy Adams also shines in what is more of a co-lead than a supporting role, providing Lynne Cheney with a steely, cold, Machiavellian personality and putting a stamp on the character as well. Both look to earn plenty of awards season attention with their efforts.
At times, Vice’s frenetic editing and jarring cuts to explain political concepts or flashback to a moment in time for context can be off-putting and distracting. For every moment of brilliance, like a faux credits scene in the middle of the film that makes the point of emphasizing Cheney’s distance from politics before being called back into action by George W. Bush, director Adam McKay makes the puzzling decision to lean too much on a style he utilized in a much more balanced way in 2015’s The Big Short. Despite these technical issues with the film, Vice’s reminder of the missteps within American politics is a much needed public service and a warning of where we could end up once more without being vigilant. Bale and Adams also provided great performances that help to power the informative film and are entirely worthy of the praise both are receiving. For many viewers, Vice’s unrelenting criticism of the circumstances that allowed for the things it documents to transpire will be a tough pill to swallow but this is what makes it all the more important. Being aware of our faults and past mistakes makes it so that they are less likely to be repeated. As America navigates through tough political times, a warning from the past could help to prevent a return to dark times.
Image: Annapurna Pictures