Louella Konner, ‘22
Until quite recently, I was relatively uninformed about Dick Cheney, or about the power that he wielded as the vice president to George Bush. I had seen his episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Who is America,’ in which Cheney declared the Gulf War his “favorite war,” and cheerily signed Baron Cohen’s waterboarding device. From this, I mostly concluded that Cheney was intensely gullible and keen on violence, but I had little understanding of his reputation as a truly evil man.Vice, Adam Mckay’s new biopic, which details Cheney’s long journey towards vice presidency, seeks to remedy this kind of ignorance by exposing Cheney as a cold, calculated and heartless character — one who hasn’t always been that way.
The film opens with Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in a room of White House officials, anxiously conferring in response to the 9/11 attacks. Then, there is a flashback to Cheney in 1963, a Yale-dropout-alcoholic, who gets pulled over by a policeman and arrested for drunk driving. His girlfriend, Lynne, threatens to leave him if he doesn’t clean himself up. So Cheney does clean himself up, and hops right into politics. We see Cheney find work as an intern under the Nixon Administration, working for Nixon’s economic advisor, Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell. Then we see him become White House Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford. After this, he becomes a Wyoming state representative, with much help from his now-wife Lynn. We see him work as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush during the Gulf War. And finally, we see him become the Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), who agrees to leave the responsibilities of energy and foreign policy to Cheney.
This is where Cheney becomes truly corrupted by power, it seems. The film details the ways in which Cheney essentially manipulated Bush to launch the “War on Terror,” and how Bush acted as a sort of puppet through which Cheney can enact his political agenda. And the film notes that Cheney did many more horrible things under the Bush administration; he sank the economy, perpetuated and normalized the worst kinds of torture, helped destroy the climate, and so on and so forth.
The film is narrated by Kurt, played by Jesse Plemons, a man whose relation to Cheney remains a mystery until the last ten minutes of the film (Spoiler Alert: he’s revealed to be Cheney’s heart donor). He narrates mostly in voiceover, but occasionally pops up from his couch or a morning run. He seems to represent the everyman, perhaps to highlight the effect of Cheney’s political decisions on the average American. This symbol seems a bit crude and overstated; Kurt is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and serves his community in virtually every way possible. He is all that’s good in the world, and yet, his death is what keeps Dick Cheney alive.
And Kurt isn’t an isolated character in his crudeness. Many of the characters, like Bush, or Rumsfeld, or, at times, Cheney, seem like caricatures rather than real people. But perhaps that is the point — Mckay is not attempting to humanize or create depth and nuance for any of the characters. Instead, he’s embracing their evilness, and satirizing it and taking it to extremes. Much of the film plays out like a series of goofy sketches, such as one scene in which Cheney and other members of the Bush administration sit at a restaurant, as the waitress reads the menu: “enemy combatant, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay …” Cheney replies, “We’ll have them all!”, and the table erupts in laughter.
But what might have put me off the most was the journey of Cheney’s character — or lack thereof. Cheney starts off as an unambitious, naive, slightly dim frat boy, and transforms into a powerful and manipulative politician, with a carefully curated public image. But we don’t really see this transformation; we’re just kind of told that it happens. There is little filament that connects the Cheney we see at the end of the film and the one at the beginning.
Vice is certainly entertaining, but it is also a bit ridiculous. However, this ridiculousness seems pretty purposeful, and, while it’s a bit uncarefully distributed, it is sure to garner some laughs — or at least some discussion.