Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill. Length 132 minutes
In the brilliant and ironic style, halfway between fiction and documentary, which he used in The Big Short, his film about the subprime crisis, director Adam McKay portrays one of the most enigmatic characters in recent American political history, Dick Cheney.
This is an openly partisan movie. McKay shields himself from allegations of bias by addressing the issue openly in a fictitious focus group, like those used by real politicians to interpret and direct public opinion on thorny subjects like the war in Iraq.
The film divided American viewers and did not repeat the success of The Big Short, although it earned Christian Bale a best actor award at the Golden Globes for his chameleon-like performance as Cheney. It also scored an Oscar – but for best makeup and hairstyling.
Vice has an all-star cast, which helps viewers navigate the myriad of characters populating the American political arena that cross Cheney's path, sometimes just for a scene or two. Amy Adams shines as Cheney’s wife Lynne. She is crucial for the discreet but unrelenting ascent of her spouse — loyal, ruthless and dominated by an ambition that can only be satisfied through a third party. McKay turns her into an American Lady Macbeth – a parallel staged in a none-too-subtle way with an imaginary Shakespearian dialogue in one of the crucial decisions in the couple's life.
That is one of the few moments of near transparency for a character who otherwise remains opaque. Apart from his devotion to power, the movie fails — and perhaps does not even try – to delve into his inner life.
McKay’s version of Cheney begins his career as a boozy university student with no ambition who changes course only after an ultimatum from his fianceé. Eventually he becomes a follower of the ruthless Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in Nixon’s White House. He has no convictions apart from the pursuit of a role within the Establishment. He has no skills to speak of, apart from an ability to dish out brazen lies while always seeming reasonable.
Is this profile convincing? No. McKay’s cynical portrait cannot explain a political career spanning four decades and culminating in the Vice-Presidency. Cheney is able to obtain from a naive George W. Bush unprecedented power for a job which had been considered “not worth a bucket of warm spit” (in the words of FDR’s Vice). He manages the position with ruthless skill, returning favours to old friends and completing an old plan to declare war on Iraq. .
Cheney is unswervingly loyal to his family, even to his daughter Mary, an open lesbian. It was for her sake that he refuses to support Bush's stand on gay marriage. But at the end of the film Cheney is still a mysterious evil genius.
Which was already the opinion of people who bought tickets to see Vice in the first place. No one was expecting McKay to portray him as Capitol Hill’s answer to Mother Teresa. In the end, McKay is just preaching to the choir and ignoring the possibility of drawing a more intriguing (if riskier) portrait of a real human being.
Laura Cotta Ramosino is a story editor for Rai Uno, the national Italian broadcaster. A television writer and a creative producer, she is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri del cinema and Scegliere un film, an annual collection of film reviews.