As the old saying goes: Hindsight is 20-20. But therein lies the trap, the notion that since we can see the past clearly, we can also understand it. If history has taught us anything, untangling what we know from what we thought we knew is harder than it looks. And in some cases, more knowledge only confounds and obfuscates the simple truth at hand.
Take the two documentaries from Errol Morris: Fog of War and The Unknown Known, featuring former Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, respectively. Both movies interrogate their subjects about foreign wars (Vietnam for McNamara and Iraq for Rumsfeld), both are obsessed with knowledge (McNamara bases everything on data, Rumsfeld on definitions), and both paint a strikingly similar portrait. Neither man set out to do evil, but along the way, they did. Was it out of their control? Or because of it?
The same can be asked of former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose life gets the biopic treatment in Vice. Written and directed by Adam McKay and starring Christian Bale as the former Veep, Vice takes a giddy approach to the monster movie where the monster is the hero while the villagers with pitchforks settle for the back seat.
Using mixed media, voice-over narration, text on screen, and stream-of-consciousness editing, Vice opens with a ne’er-do-well young Cheney, drunk as a skunk behind the wheel on a desolate Wyoming road. The next morning, his then-girlfriend, now wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), dresses him down and commands him to change. While she does so, flies buzz around Cheney’s already rotting corpse.
While John Milton’s Lucifer decreed that it was better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, Cheney quickly figured out it was even better to rule from the shadows. So, he did. With Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) by his side, Cheney served under Nixon, then Ford, then Reagan, and finally H.W. Bush before running with the son, W. (Sam Rockwell) and, quite possibly, becoming the most powerful vice president in the history of the United States.
Under heavy makeup, significant weight, and a mouth that barely cracks a slit, Bale presents Cheney not as a caricature but as a man of flesh and blood. To paraphrase a quote from Lee Marvin, no bad guy ever sees himself as “the bad guy.” Cheney certainly didn’t, and in Vice’s pivotal scene, Cheney stares dead into the camera, possibly echoing Morris’ two docs, and harangues those who dared stand in his way or questioned his decisions. After all, Dick Cheney will always be the hero in the Dick Cheney story.
Vice isn’t perfect. Nor should it be taken as entirely factual—the best art aims to illuminate while entertaining—but Vice succeeds by presenting the actions and words that comprise a man in power. As Jesus once asked, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world yet forfeits his soul?” Vice wonders: What if he never had one in the first place?
Written and directed by Adam McKay
Produced by Will Ferrell, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick, Brad Pitt
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons
Annapurna, Rated R, Running time 132 minutes, Opened Dec. 25, 2018.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 19, “Rollin’ with the VEEP.”
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