Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Vice – an interesting but unfocussed character assassination that falls short of its potential impact

Vice is a film that shows former US Vice President Dick Cheney to be – at one point, quite literally – a heartless power-monger who settled for getting his hands on the largest levers of power in the US rather than the absolute top title. Though, in some of the final scenes, screenwriter and director Adam McKay suggests that he is ready for the next generation of Cheney politicians – his oldest daughter Liz – to overcome his campaigning hurdle of younger daughter Mary’s sexuality in the pursuit of her political career.

Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney throughout his adulthood, from the drunk mediocre no-hoper who is challenged by his wife to “have the courage to be someone or I’m gone”, to pacing the hallways of decision-making and rising to become the youngest White House chief of staff before the setback of Ford losing the 1976 election to Carter, winning his way to be a congressman, Secretary of Defense, a private sector CIO, and engineering his way to become finally Vice President.

We drop into the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the dodgy dossier (Tony Blair gets a few seconds of screen time) and the US population’s re-education to associate Saddam Hussein and Iraq with al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Focus groups are shown to help reframe the words used to better persuade and less candidly explain government policy and the rationale for military action.

But the film’s truest purpose is to encourage its audience to think carefully about how power is grasped and at times stolen, used and abused. Vice asks questions about authority and accountability, using Cheney’s long-held keenness to find legal opinion that supports the notion of Unitary Executive Theory (basically, cover for whatever the President does to be legal because he is the President) as well as some of his specific actions in the hours after the 9/11 terrorist attack as a basis to suggest that the VP wanted to short circuit normal governmental checks and balances.

More often than not we hear Cheney’s inner thoughts than his words, but when he does, Bale speaks through the side of his mouth, pauses mid-phrase, and imitates the few Cheney-isms that are at all recognisable from public appearances. The physical transformation is impressive over the fifty year period the film studies. The steely-eyed decisiveness, often based on instinct and long-term threat management, is stirring, if not a little alarming.

Lynne Cheney is portrayed by Amy Adams as the antithesis of a feminist whose own glass ceiling will not limit her ambition for her husband who only needed to be given a stern ultimatum once. “I won’t ever disappoint you again” he promises her. Nearly always by his side, she supports, stands in and counsels her pet power project.

Given the half century timeline and the real life figures involved, the audience are necessarily introduced to a breath-taking cast of characters over the two and a bit hours. Along the way we’re introduced to the continuing adventures of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) as well as the side story of how Roger Ailes’ long-championed to change TV impartiality rules which led to the launch of Fox News. But the film is somewhat littered with too many people carefully wigged and made up to look like their real-life counterparts.

Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack barges into key moments of action with a clanking piano or a loud orchestration dominated by stabs of brass. It’s not subtle. But nothing about this film is. It’s a frontal attack on Cheney’s style of leadership and the Republican party and its supporters who allowed him to operate with near total power at the right hand of a weak President George W Bush. Sam Rockwell’s depiction of Bush as a small child in an important chair amplifies the differences between President and VP.

While I’d problems with the tone and flippancy of McKay’s earlier The Big Short, it’s exposé of financial mismanagement and the subprime mortgage crash was much more focussed and coherent than Vice.

The audacious alternate ending midway through the movie is probably the only laugh-out loud moment. A fly-fishing metaphor is lightly followed throughout the film, but Vice’s impact would have been greater if it had been more consistent humorous, satirical or educational. The film tries to be smart, even addressing the likely accusations of its liberal bias in a mid-credit scene before the cinema screen lights go up.

Dick Cheney is an interesting figure. However, overall, Vice comes over as a character assassination film that bears out a grudge against him and will reinforce whatever prejudice you enter the cinema with. It’s over-argued, and the self-admission that Cheney is a private man about whom little is known somewhat undermines the huge amount of imagination that has gone into the fictionalisation of his personal and political life.

Vice is being screened in Movie House, Belfast Odeon, Omniplex and Odyssey cinemas.

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