Dick Cheney biopic Vice reeks of moral ambivalence

by James Robins / 30 December, 2018
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Vice is enormous, gratuitous, riotous fun, but should slapstick comedy be made from a story of atrocity?

Without stooping to hyperbole, former US Vice President Dick Cheney is one of the authors – if not the definitive scribe – of perhaps the greatest crime of the 21st century: the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The consequences of that needless war still resonate today, as do the political choices made long before the tanks started rolling across the desert.

Lying is foundational to politics – Donald Trump is no innovator here, just an accomplished stylist of fibs – and Cheney’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” theory is one of the largest porkies of them all. The Bush-era VP swelled half-truths, cherry-picked intelligence reports, hearsay and ideological arrogance into a surreal fantasy of imminent threat.

What, then, are we to make of Adam McKay’s new biopic about Dick Cheney? First of all, it’s fun. Enormous, gratuitous, riotous fun. In his last film, The Big Short, McKay turned the onset of the 2008 Great Recession into a jape and here, too, Cheney’s rise from alcoholic dropout to bureaucrat supremo is jaunty and spirited.

Christian Bale throws around an impressively authentic paunch in the role, astutely capturing the gruff, clenched-teeth halting growl of his voice, the lipless grimace, the unscrupulous instinct, the calculating bloody-mindedness.

We see his boozy youth, a correctional scolding at the hands of wife Lynne (Amy Adams), and a rise through the doomed Nixon White House. Alongside later co-conspirator Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Cheney used Watergate as a springboard to become Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. From there, it’s a quick ladder-climb to Secretary of Defence and finally, duping fellow ex-boozer George Dubya (Sam Rockwell) into gaining the vice presidency.

For McKay, the fourth wall does not exist. His trademark is dense artifice and heady irony. Any person or situation that can be milked for a joke will be squeezed dry. Characters narrate directly to a knowing audience. McKay has an admirably punky attitude, too: who else would “end” a film halfway through with a sarcastic credits sequence, deploy Naomi Watts in a mere cameo, or use a soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice as pillow talk?

By no means is this a fawning biopic. Throughout, Cheney is variously labelled a “filthy hobo”, a “big, fat, piss-soaked zero”, and a “cold sonofabitch”. But the irony can often obscure and distort the seriousness with which McKay is ultimately approaching his subjects. Again, as with The Big Short, which turned Wall St opportunists into savant-like antiheroes and shrugged at their victims, an air of ethical ambivalence clings to Vice.

There’s something instinctively icky in making a slapstick comedy about war crimes; as if pantomime villains deserved our applause and morality and good conscience were virtues best ignored. It’s worth remembering: this is fundamentally a story of torture and atrocity, not an episode of Veep.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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