Dick Cheney in ‘Vice’: Was he vice president or viceroy?
Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney. movie still

Writer/director Adam McKay’s Vice, an all-star biographical movie about Dick Cheney is among Hollywood’s top 2018 political pictures. It’s utterly uncanny how Christian Bale completely disappears into his role as the former vice president—just as John C. Reilly does as Oliver Hardy in Stan & Ollie, another biopic released during the holiday season. With his bravura performance Bale has Cheney’s look, mannerisms and sound down to perfection. At times, when Bale is onscreen, a viewer could be excused for feeling they’re almost watching a documentary or TV news and not an actor in a feature. How Bale transmogrified himself from playing Batman to fat man Cheney is truly a feat of astounding acting for the ages, reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s star turn in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. movie still

Vice’s cast portrays a veritable “who’s who” of the Republican elite, from the noxious Nixon era through the disastrous Bush-Cheney regime. Depicting actual historical figures is tricky, especially in a media-saturated age when most of these personages are still living (unlike the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, U.S. troops and others they butchered). Sam Rockwell (who snared the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) captures not only the outer persona of George W. Bush but the inner self of a man (as Cheney shrewdly surmises onscreen) who is a drunken lout with a tremendous need to prove himself, with catastrophic consequences for humanity thanks to Dick’s enabling. Readers may recall that Cheney was often referred to as “Bush’s brain.”

Other members of the ensemble are less successful in terms of resembling those they’re incarnating. Steve Carell doesn’t look much like Congressman then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but he captures the manic quality of this brash war criminal who mentored and teamed up with the younger Cheney, that scheming Wyoming man on the make. Of course this despicable dynamic duo shared things in common: world class opportunism plus a shrewd capacity for power plays and palace intrigue. Former Daily Show correspondent Carell is emerging as a real force on the acting scene, particularly given his lead role in the recent Welcome to Marwen.

Although Amy Adams doesn’t look much like Lynne Cheney (Adams is much prettier) she skillfully conveys the former second lady’s shrewish, driven personality that, according to Vice, pushed her husband in his relentless pursuit for power. Kirk Bovill and Matthew Jacobs somewhat resemble, respectively, Henry Kissinger and Antonin Scalia.

LisaGay Hamilton doesn’t resemble sleazy Condoleezza Rice in the least and has little to do as W.’s National Security Adviser and then his Secretary of State other than react in utter astonishment at Cheney’s overreaching for power. Rice took over the latter post after the departure of Colin Powell, played by Tyler Perry, who also looks little like the figure being portrayed.

Bill Camp bears no resemblance to Gerald Ford whatsoever, nor do a host of other actors in small parts as various GOP apparatchiks such as John Hillner as Bush Sr., Adam Bartley as the Orwellian word slinger Frank Luntz, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Justin Kirk as Cheney flunky Scooter Libby. Don McManus plays legal henchman David Addington who finds a cosmic rationale for every norm and law Cheney wants to break, along with his co-conspirator, torture-justifier John Yoo (Paul Yoo).

Kevin Flood, however, does look something like Richard Clarke, the “hair on fire” former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism, the only member of that misbegotten regime who totally failed to protect us from 9/11 and had the decency to publicly apologize. Of course, there’s much more to acting than mere appearance, and Bale leads his cast in painting a picture of the essence of his character. He plays Cheney as a power-mad, greedy consummate opportunist, a faceless, heartless bureaucrat who always does what’s expedient in terms of his self interest—if not in the national interest. McKay shows, for example, how the Iraq War debacle immensely benefited Halliburton, the multinational energy company Cheney headed.

Making a biopic that appeals to a mass audience can be problematic. As he similarly did in 2015’s The Big Short (for which McKay co-won a screenwriting Oscar and which also featured Bale and Carell), McKay pursues a path of disrupting a straightforward docudrama narrative with highly filmic forays into satire, speculation, metaphor and more. (An opening disclaimer appears onscreen noting that since so much of Cheney’s covert career has been secretive, it is subject to interpretation, although clearly McKay did copious research.)

At times McKay’s film form plays with chronological order in order to make his points. Although there is some great acting in Vice, it is these cinematic digressions to express McKay’s overall view of Cheney’s duplicitous, treacherous, underhanded personality that wreaked havoc on America and other parts of the globe that is the best thing about Vice and what I enjoyed most about it.

The film’s symbolism is resonant. During his heart replacement operation the heart attack-prone Cheney is cleverly shown during the surgical procedure to literally have no heart. This visualization of Cheney’s heartlessness is one of cinema’s best uses of pictorial allegory since Michael Corleone and his fellow mobsters in 1974’s The Godfather: Part II sliced a birthday cake with an image of Cuba in the icing to represent cutting up the island so all of the gangsters could get their slice.

McKay also uses Cheney’s fishing expeditions for symbolic purposes, including in the final credit sequence that features lures and hooks. (Another droll credit sequence appears near the middle of this 132-minute tour de force, but don’t be fooled into leaving the theater prematurely. It’s just one of McKay’s numerous humorous interventions.)

At times, McKay ventures into the rarified realm of Sergei Eisenstein-style “intellectual montage” that breaks continuity in order to interject and amplify ideas. This is arguably the highest form of filmmaking (although I hasten to add that porn flicks and TV commercials also use this associative audio-visual technique). But here McKay uses intellectual montage to great advantage to advance his concept of Cheney’s recklessness that eventually caused cataclysmic outcomes.

There is an interesting storyline regarding the Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill). Lynne and Dick seem to admirably stand by their gay child—that is, until their other daughter, the rabid reactionary, anti-same sex marriage Liz (Lily Rabe) decides to run for Wyoming’s lone Congressional seat.

To paraphrase Laurel & Hardy, the absolutely unnecessary Iraq War is “another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” Vice lays the blame for that apocalyptic debacle squarely at Cheney’s feet, as opposed to pointing the finger at the CIA, etc., for “faulty intelligence.” (In another small role, Stephen Adly Guirgis is a reasonable lookalike for CIA chief George “Slam Dunk” Tenet.) Just as Cheney and Bush Jr.’s miserable foreign policy encouraged Osama bin Laden to attack the USA—after striking the USS Cole in 2000 the former U.S. ally made it abundantly clear he’d deploy his expert CIA-training by attacking America if Washington didn’t remove its “infidel” troops from Saudi Arabia, where Mecca is located—the Bush regime did nothing to prepare for a possible terrorist strike here at home. But 9/11 gave Cheney, the former Halliburton top banana, the pretext to invade oil-rich Iraq, which the movie shows Dick and Rummy had been chomping at the bit to attack all along.

Of course, Saddam Hussein didn’t have those mythical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and the Iraq attack was a wild goose chase—though it immeasurably enriched Halliburton, defense contractors and other Bush campaign donors with deep pockets. The United States of America is so uncivilized, so lawless, that the Cheney/Bush regime was allowed to act with total impunity. There have been no war crime tribunals à la Nuremberg for Cheney and his fellow war criminals, who illegally, unprovoked by Saddam, unleashed a mass murder in the Middle East and beyond that we, Iraqis and countless others are still paying for. The film does not get into this much, but the impunity also applies to the Bush-Cheney failures on the domestic front as well—see the Great Recession of 2008.

In the court of public opinion, however, they took a drubbing. Characters like Cheney and Bush aren’t solely motivated by greed or lust of power: Lacking any insight and despising self-reflection, they are obsessed with their stature and how others perceive them. By subjecting them to ridicule, Adam McKay is holding these mass murderers accountable for their massive, incalculable crimes against humanity.

Vice is undeniably one of the most progressive pictures of 2018. The trailer can be viewed here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.