Heart Of Vice
Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Adam McCarthy’s Vice, out from 25 January…
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell
Adam McKay’s biographical film about former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is a rum affair, described by its producers as a “comedy drama” that manages to be neither, such is its uncertainty regarding its ambition. It’s also been hailed as a political satire, yet while it has the hallmarks of such works, it is neither scathing nor witty, as the movie goes through the familiar (if elliptical) motions of what it really is – a passable docudrama with very high production values. One acquaintance likened the project to an old- school HBO television movie, although that would be selling the matter short. The piece does reveal the odd nugget about the machinations taking place behind closed doors, but never gets into the psychology beneath.
The film’s obvious strength is its performances and the commitment of its leads, with Christian Bale of course standing out in his portrayal of Cheney. In early scenes, when the young Cheney is a directionless lineman suffering from alcoholism, Bale (who gained considerable weight in addition to the layers of prosthetics to capture his character) plays him as a diffident dullard, a shambling burly loner prone to brawling. As the film progresses and he begins to intersect with cynically ruthless apparatchiks such as Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) he alters his tone, paring down his personality, becoming, as the film’s narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons) avers, a bland, invisible entity.
And yet despite Bale’s effort, or perhaps because of who he is aping, it’s a one note performance from thereon, with Cheney a brutally prosaic careerist – a superannuated cipher whose motivation gets lost behind the makeup and myriad tics and pauses used by the actor. The film rarely achieves any depth in its interpolation of power-grabbing and banal warmongering, even if it is a smart and concise primer for all the events that led to the implosion of Iraq and the development of ISIS. There’s the fortunate distancing from Nixon prior to the impeachment, his rise to Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, his running for Congress (with the help of his shrewish and equally megalomaniacal wife Lynne, played by Amy Adams) during the Carter administration, and his support of Reagan’s raft of anti-environmental schemes, before becoming Secretary of Defense in the first Gulf War under George HW Bush. And so forth, all the while aided and abetted by the gurning Rumsfeld, and troubleshooting lawyer David Addington (Don McManus, superbly evil in his role).
The film illustrates all too well what a malefactor Cheney was (and continues to be) – even during the wilderness years in the Clinton era he rules Halliburton before being tempted back into power by Dubya (Sam Rockwell, more eerily accurate than Bale in certain respects) with the promise of refitting the lame duck position of Vice-President with vast executive powers, all the while having learned seemingly nothing about consequences. It is by this point that the producers can no longer help themselves – from 9/11 onwards the shocking footage of torture, bombing and brutality extinguishes any hope of satire, leaving us with Cheney, now on autopilot, capriciously terraforming countries and shitting on anyone (including Rumsfeld) who gets in his way.
Which is as far as Bale’s turn (and yes, it is a turn, in the same way that Oldman’s Churchill was one) takes us. Despite all the plaudits, the actor loses his battle with his role due to the latter’s inane and neutral inflexibility – there’s an incorrigible demagogue in there all right, unstoppable despite the litany of heart trouble. But Bale can’t dig him out of his mumbling shell, hence all the horrific, expository footage used to add commentary.
The best moment of the film is when Cheney and his partner in crime Rumsfeld eavesdrop on Nixon and Kissinger (Kirk Bovill)’s plans for Cambodia in 1973, long past the point that the Vietnam War was favoured by the American electorate. The casual and disinterested decision-making by the President and Secretary of State (and the ensuing dire consequences) is the hub of the film and the blueprint for U.S. Foreign Policy thereafter. Aside from that, the film lacks anything but the most trenchant themes, the one and only leitmotif (that I could spot) being Cheney’s cardiac problems, culminating in a transplant. Like its subject, the film simply has no heart.
Here’s the film’s trailer