‘Vice’ Film Review: Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney Biopic Shows the Triumph of Mediocrity

The director’s wacky approach feels like the wrong tack for such a horror show of recent history

Matt Kennedy/Annapurna

If there’s one thing writer-director Adam McKay’s “Vice” does well, it’s highlight how white mediocrity has thrived in American politics and pop culture. But McKay also does this by way of making a mediocre movie about mediocre politician Dick Cheney played by a surprisingly mediocre Christian Bale. At some point, and at some level, you wish the white mediocrity could be reined in, but it never is.

The first problem with “Vice” is that it assumes its audience is in on its joke, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is even prefaced by text across the screen reading that the former vice president was “one of the most secretive leaders in history,” so telling this quasi-true story was more than a little difficult. But, “we f—ing tried.”

Hold on: They’re making a comedy about one of the most polarizing, if not downright vilified, men in American political history, one who was integral to the widely condemned invasion of Iraq after 9/11? And not actually confronting anything he did in any real way outside the lens of ludicrousness? Please, spare us.

McKay, known for highlighting the fallacy of American culture in recent films like “The Big Short,” may actually be the best filmmaker to take on a subject like Cheney, one of history’s biggest ruses. That’s not because his films are good, but because McKay seems comfortable presenting a delicate issue as a joke without encouraging or offering any room for discussion. He seems to want to explore how funny is it that someone as monotone and uncharismatic as Cheney became one of the most powerful men in the world.

Getting past the movie’s conceptual goofiness, “Vice” does at least show how someone like Dick rose to power: by failing upward. When we meet Dick at the start of the movie, he’s accosted by police who pull him over for driving under the influence. It’s his second DUI arrest, and his young wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), is over it. But not so over it that she’s going to leave him. At this point, it’s the early ’60s, and Lynne is acutely aware of the fact that as a woman, even one portrayed as fiercely capable as she is here, she has zero options when it comes to climbing up any corporate ladder, so he needs to do that for both of them.

Lynne, like many other women of the era, had to be satisfied as a booster and champion of her husband’s success (including the scholarship she helps secure him at Yale), even if he doesn’t deserve it. Adams’ diligent portrayal of a white middle-class American woman, enhanced by the stuffy country-club wardrobe by costume designer Susan Matheson (“The Big Short”), effectively captures Lynne’s relentless effort to remind people of her husband’s worth. To what end, though?

That’s where the rest of the story comes in. After Cheney arbitrarily decides to be a Republican power player after seeing then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, also doing a silly impression of an infamous American figure) throw his weight around, he rises up the GOP ranks during the Ford presidency. Then after a long period of exile, he hobnobs his way back into the White House by taking advantage of the naiveté of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell at his silliest) and convincing him to alter the role of vice president so that he has more power than tradition has allowed.

And that’s pretty much how a mediocre white man, whose own wife at one point remarks how disastrously unappealing he is as a public speaker, rises to power. The narrator of the film (Jesse Plemons, in a thankless role) notes that Cheney has “an ability to make his wildest ideas sound measured.”

These “wild” ideas, though, include his response to 9/11, his support of waterboarding, the phone tapping of American civilian and numerous other offenses that left a dark stain in American politics. These decisions also came at time when the only people in the room who ever seemed to question him were notably two of the only people of color in the Bush administration: Secretaries of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) and later Condoleezza Rice (Lisa Gay Hamilton).

Again, where is the joke here, aside from Bale acting as though he’s in a serious, dramatic movie in which he goes Method by adding on pounds and grunting his way through a half-baked performance? This is neither funny nor insightful.

McKay tries to connect Dick Cheney’s most abhorrent actions and acquisition of power to an era ripe with decayed morality — from Richard Nixon’s resignation after Watergate to Fox News’ mission to make America “right” again. But none of it really lands, especially presented in this tone of “it’s funny because it’s true.” Though the film’s postscript explains how the concept, and continued support, of a unitary executive enables a man like Cheney to seize power, “Vice” holds neither the American people, Cheney nor anyone else in the White House accountable.

And maybe McKay wasn’t really trying to indict anyone here, which is fine. But what’s missing in this and even “The Big Short” is a strong filmmaker’s voice. He’s not saying anything, just poking fun. In an era in which the general public is organizing to confront the White House on multiple issues, this isn’t the film we need right now.