The two terms of President George W. Bush (which lasted from 2001 to January 2009) were a disaster for the United States. This was the administration that ignored a warning that Osama bin Laden was determined to attack the nation a month before 9/11, and then used that attack as the false pretense for the invasion and occupation of Iraq–an action that cost millions of lives, destabilized the entire Middle East and paved the way for ISIS. Bush (and Vice President Dick Cheney) also presided over the largest surveillance of American citizens in decades, a massive increase in the deficit brought about by a wholly unnecessary tax cut for the rich, and deregulated our financial sector to the brink of a global depression.
We have to acknowledge all this because there is currently a bit of revisionism happening with regard to President Bush II’s administration in light of the current horror that is squatting in the Oval Office. Surely Bush wasn’t that bad, the thinking goes, compared to the current complete chaos? And while the argument could be made that there was at least a fundamentally functional government in place during the Bush years (as opposed to now), the fact remains that Bush nearly wrecked our economy and ruined our standing globally while paving the way for a new kind of virulent far-right politics that eventually led us to where we are today.
All of which brings us to Vice, the new film from writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short) that chronicles the life of the enigmatic and ruthless Dick Cheney, Bush’s VP and, some say, pretty much the shadow commander-in-chief. Bush, as played by Sam Rockwell, turns up in this film as an amiable and not especially bright good old boy who is willing to hand vast parcels of his executive powers over to his vice president simply because he doesn’t understand them. Cheney, on the other hand, is calculating, highly intelligent, and cold-blooded, although his motivations remain mostly obscure.
Cheney is played by Christian Bale, who disappears fully into the hide of the stocky Wyoming native in what is nothing short of an astonishing performance. Bale has the voice, the mannerisms, the walk and the physicality all down; for those of us who have really only seen and heard Cheney in his later years, there are moments in the movie when you feel you are watching the real-life politician. Bale’s Cheney is as reptilian and condescending as we painfully remember him, with his unconditional love for his wife and daughters (one of whom is gay, which leads Cheney to proclaim that he won’t campaign against same sex marriage) providing the only glimpse of humanity in an otherwise inhuman being.
Bale is wonderfully aided and abetted by Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne, whom the movie posits as the power behind the man. Adams’ transformation is in some ways more subtle, and she captures the steely resolve of a woman who cares deeply for her man while also seeing him as a vessel to vast power. Rockwell does a more satisfying job as Bush than Josh Brolin did in Oliver Stone’s 2008 film, W., while Steve Carell does a passable impersonation of Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s arrogant, smarmy, shoot-from-the-hip mentor who ends up getting shown the door by his now powerful former student after the shellacking the Bush regime took in the 2006 midterms.
The problem is that while McKay’s The Big Short benefitted from its satirical, somewhat goofy “can you believe what these guys were doing?” viewpoint, Vice goes for a similar tone but doesn’t nail it. For one, not many Americans really knew the deep background behind the events of the 2008 meltdown or couldn’t understand them (a fact that The Big Short emphasized marvelously), while much of what happens in Vice, save perhaps for Cheney’s early years, has been documented exhaustively and demands a far more serious treatment. What happened during the Bush years just seems far too grim for parody, and its cast of characters decidedly more malevolent.
So while Vice has its moments of brilliance, and its two leads are impeccable, it also proceeds through a standard “this happened and then that happened” structure, which hits all the major events in Cheney’s career and life without delving too deeply into any of them. The hardest-hitting segments are when McKay cuts away to the collateral damage caused by some of Cheney’s more reckless and overconfident policies, particularly the Iraq occupation and all the carnage and mayhem that engendered. Other scenes, such as a weird bedroom exchange which the Cheneys speak entirely in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, elicit a puzzled clutch of laughs but don’t necessarily land the point the filmmaker may have wanted to make.
By the end of Vice, a persistent thought occurred: Who is this film for? The film leaves one disheartened and depressed, obviously if one is already not a fan of Cheney, Bush, or their associates, this could be described as a feel-bad movie for liberals, while the upcoming On the Basis of Sex is more a feel-good exercise for the left. One would hope that all Americans would feel horror at rewatching the events of the former film and celebrate the fight for equality that the latter effort (which is flawed in its own way) portrays, although these days that may not be the case.
Ultimately, however, Vice is an excellently made and phenomenally acted cipher, much like the man it investigates. If enough people see it, it may slow the low-key, steady revision of history that is almost bound to happen, as Vice wants to make the case for why we need to avoid the likes of Dick Cheney–a mostly amoral man with little regard for other human beings and no respect for the limits of power–but it can’t quite decide how it wants to present its argument.
Vice is out in theaters on Christmas Day, Dec. 25.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye