Writer/director Adam McKay began his entertainment career as head writer for Saturday Night Live, where he mastered the art of sketch comedy, then gradually moved into making comedic movies like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Later, in his 2015 movie, “The Big Short,” McKay took on the complexities of the 2008 financial collapse, explaining arcane economic policies by using his trademark humor and inventiveness. Few moviegoers will forget Margot Robbie explaining the toxic effect of mortgage-backed securities as she basks in a bubble bath of frivolity.
In “Vice,” McKay takes on another abstruse topic as he examines the political career of our most powerful vice president, Dick Cheney. Whatever the topic, McKay’s inventive mind, analytical skills and penchant for humor surface as he explores some of the darkest moments in the 21st century and the players in power during those moments.
We first meet a young Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who has washed out of Yale, returned to his home state of Wyoming, and now works as a lineman by day while drinking heavily each night. Lynne Vincent (Amy Adams), not yet married to Dick, tells him that he is squandering his potential and unless he stops drinking, completes his education, and sets goals for his life, she will break off their engagement. By the end of the scene, Dick looks into her eyes and promises that he will never disappoint her again. He keeps his word.
Always attracted to politics and power, Cheney runs for Congress in 1979 and wins the one Congressional seat that meagerly populated Wyoming has. Having previously served as a Congressional intern assigned to the assertive and powerful Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Cheney has already learned the art of statecraft. By 1989, he is in the George H.W. Bush cabinet as Secretary of Defense.
McKay artfully intersperses Cheney’s political career with scenes of him riding horseback in Wyoming and fly fishing in the Sierras. Cheney teaches his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary (Alison Pill) the skill of creating artificial bait that will lure unsuspecting trout. The analogy for survival and success in Washington D.C. is not lost here. Although Cheney is depicted as ruthless in his pursuit of power, he is always shown as a devoted husband and father to Lynne and their two daughters.
During the years that the Democrats are in the White House, Cheney is employed by the Halliburton Company, which leaves him richly remunerated. When George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) runs for President, he enlists Cheney’s help in finding a running mate but is pleased that Cheney himself wants to take that role. There is a deliciously amusing scene between the two of them when Cheney realizes the duties of the Vice President are so vague that they could be crafted to suit the chief executive and his VP. He tells Bush that as his Vice President, he could relieve him of overseeing some of his more tedious and bureaucratic duties, such a military, energy, and foreign policy. The plan appeals to Bush and early in his administration Cheney offices pop up in several D.C. locations.
Both the President and the VP take on more powers after 9/11. A theory of “unitary executive power,” supported by some conservative politicians and pundits, is now propelled, granting the President and, in this case, his Vice President vast powers in the fight against terrorists. The Patriot Act and the use of advanced interrogation methods are soon interpreted as legally acceptable. McKay uses satire to present these controversial policies. In a scene where Cheney, Rumsfeld and other high ranking officials are out to dinner, their waiter (Alfred Molina) offers them various forms of torture as the menu’s plates de jour, and the four diners agree, “We’ll take them all.”
McKay also realizes that he must recreate scenes and conversations that occur within the privacy of the Cheney home. Again, he uses various comedic strategies, the most inventive being a long bedroom conversation between Lynne and Dick, written in iambic pentameter, giving it the cadence and significance of a Shakespearean monologue.
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