McKay presents the dryer political details like a Powerpoint presentation, utilizing voiceovers perfectly to help the audience understand things better. But then when he ramps up the pace near the end of the second act, he slows down the exposition and starts to lose us. When a movie’s foundation is rooted in its presentation of details it’s easy to unravel when that disappears.
To McKay’s credit, any attempt to tell this story would be an ambitious project. There’s a lot going on and countless moving parts to a narrative that jumps all over the place, yet still managing to cling to one period when cinematically necessary. This makes the character development more rewarding, but the awkward pacing can also be jarring.
We start off in 1963 with Cheney having dropped out of Yale and struggling with alcoholism. His wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), gives him an the classic ultimatum: clean up or get out. He chooses her, of course. We see Lynne Cheney as the real driving force behind Dick, showing him how to take charge and, when necessary, how to be ruthless. Both skills that will, undoubtedly, serve him well in the future.
Christian Bale plays the title role, utterly transformed under pounds of makeup though its his skills as an actor that further the argument for him being the most chameleon-like actor of our generation. Such to a degree that we never think about the man behind the makeup, only that we’re watching Dick Cheney up on the screen and nobody else. This alone is enough to make the movie very entertaining.
But perfect emulation aside, his character transformation over the course of the film is what seals the deal. Early scenes do their best to rope us in, emphasizing his unique character to the point we begin to like him. We then see Cheney eventually realize that being in politics isn’t about policies or beliefs, but power for power’s sake. And winning – we can’t forget about the winning. To its credit, the film attempts to present this as a more complex psychological study, as how Cheney manages to sidestep or seems able to convince himself he’s doing things for the greater good of our country, rather than personal gain. However, these things can’t be rooted in facts like this movie claims they are. They feel hurried.
Along the way, Cheney becomes cohorts with the future Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who, as we saw with Lynne, teaches Dick how to be ruthless while finding himself stepped over while Cheney ascends upwards. Carell is perfect for the role. He’s slimy and pompous, and even channels his innermost Michael Scott at times.
To his surprise, Cheney is eventually asked by George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate for the 2000 presidential election. Dick is hesitant, reiterating the Vice President is a “nothing” job. So he sees Bush’s naivety as an opportunity. He creates, with Bush, a verbal agreement that he is to handle all responsibilities of energy foreign policy. The rest is history.
The story, inevitably, makes its way to the terrorist attacks on September 11th and how Cheney had the handle on the initial response and subsequent reactions. There are aspects of Cheney’s life which make us question whether or not his biography is even worth telling to begin with, outside of political reasons. Sure, details relating to 9/11 and subsequent war in Iraq are important, but this movie never places much weight on them. Or I should say, there’s equal attention put on the war as there is on the more innocuous plot points – to where it seems like the former is glossed over for the latter.
Vice is still speaking to a divided audience. As a film about a bunch of conservatives made by a bunch of liberals it’s bound to make waves. While it attempts (or claims to attempt) to present facts without bias, such things still manages to find themselves woven through the narrative, almost subliminally. This invites us, as viewers, to watch closely and read between the lines – only these lines themselves quickly become blurry. The best character studies are those about complex people, and Dick Cheney is nothing if not a complex subject. But McKay’s film isn’t sure whether or not it wants him to be.