Bruce Steele: Vice recounts the life of former vice president Dick Cheney in the tongue-firmly-in-cheek style of writer-director Andy McKay (The Big Short). Since it's such a politically loaded effort, we've invited our occasional co-critic and MSNBC junkie Christopher Oakley to join the conversation. What was your overall impression of Vice, Christopher?
Christopher Oakley: I enjoyed the film a lot — particularly Christian Bale's spot-on performance as Dick Cheney. Sometimes all he had to do was that crooked "I-know-more-than-you-do" smile that so epitomizes Cheney and I'd get goosebumps. But in every other way I've never seen someone so become the real-life character they're portraying. The makeup was stellar. I know some folks are having trouble with the tone of the movie, told from the smart-aleck point of view of someone who possesses a heart. But I chose to receive it as if the Coen brothers decided to make a movie about the most controversial and consequential vice president in history.
Edwin Arnaudin: I’m on Team Christopher here. While many people embraced The Big Short, I found its “dumbing down” of complicated financial concepts smug and pretentious — not to mention narratively muddy. Even with Margot Robbie allegedly simplifying Wall Street principles from a bubblebath, I still had to watch the damn thing nearly three times to write a basic informed review. No such problems are present with Vice, which takes a similar satirical tone yet comes across as clever instead of condescending. Bruce, where do you stand on the film? To paraphrase Steve Coogan responding to Rob Brydon’s query about Michael Bublé in The Trip to Italy, I have a feeling you’re going to say “Its windpipe."
Bruce: I found it smug at best. I agree with Christopher's assessment of Bale's performance. It's a technically phenomenal performance. But after two viewings, I still don't know what Bale or McKay think makes Cheney tick. The scene with a Nixon-era Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in which Cheney asks, "What do we believe?" and Rumsfeld just laughs and closes a door in the face of his then-intern is funny, but it's also what I found missing in the movie: What motivates the people McKay is lampooning? Does he care? Or does that fact that he finds them evil sufficient to his purpose of making fun of them?
Christopher: I’s hard for any biopic — no matter what the voice is — to delve deeply into every aspect of the subject's life. At best you get a few interesting highlights. At worst you get Reader's Digest, where they've allowed you to sample the dish but not have a meal. I think McKay wanted us to see what a deep, dark, black box Cheney's soul is. From his days as a hell-raising drunk kicked out of Yale to authorizing airstrikes on passenger planes during 9/11. By lampooning the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush Jr., he spares himself the chore of getting into their souls and by simply showing that they don't possess them. The restaurant scene (featuring Alfred Molina as a waiter) shows just how far McKay was willing to take the lampoon. Where I do feel cheated, though, is the leap from being a drunken power company lineman to becoming a congressional aide. We're not even offered a hint about how Cheney cleaned up his act and got to Congress.
Edwin: I wonder if that's an oversight on McKay's part or commentary on the ridiculous ease with which motivated people with next to no qualifications for political office can achieve their dreams. But yes, I'm with you on buying into the film's darkly humorous approach to a deadly serious chapter in U.S. history. A straightforward depiction would have been both too easy and likely an unremarkable project, and with scenes like Molina offering Cheney & Co. a menu of nefarious options and a faux ending where everyone lives happily ever after, McKay crafts a memorable reminder of these recent doings and how they've shaped current domestic and global conditions. I was likewise taken with how much the supporting players resemble their real-life counterparts — with the possible exception of Tyler Perry's Colin Powell. Did any side performances stand out to you?
Bruce: Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush is not only a fine impression, it's skewed to exactly the comic tone McKay is striving for. He's slightly cartoonish but still recognizable and human. Oddly, Amy Adams, who's a terrific actor with a great deal of range, didn't impress me much as Lynne Cheney. Again, I think she's missing a core. And can we talk about the most gratuitous, indulgent scene in the movie? When Lynne and Dick start doing a scene from Macbeth, I felt like McKay was shoving a grapefruit in my face screaming, "GET IT? GET IT? GET IT?"
Christopher: I agree that the Macbeth scene was an unfortunate choice. It requires to you believe that Cheney, tossed out of Yale for being a drunken reprobate, has memorized long passages of Shakespeare. While the Macbeth comparison is apt, it was too on-the-nose to have them quoting it as foreplay. I thought Steve Carell's Donald Rumsfeld was strangely over the top and yet right on the money. I've heard privately from folks more acquainted with him that the Carell portrayal isn't really that much of a stretch. And it's his Rumsfeld that serves as this ship's keel. If you're to understand anything about any of these unprincipled, Tom Wolfe "Masters of the Universe" running the country, you must first know that Rumsfeld's world view is the same that guides those he mentored.
Edwin: I’m fine with the Macbeth scene, which works both as a “maybe there’s more to this seemingly uncultured couple than we thought” curveball and the aspirational, metaphorical fantasy it winds up being. Carell gets top marks for his ability to capture Rummy’s look, and I’m with Bruce on Adams coming up short — though she’s really only given two choice moments and isn’t the best doppelgänger casting. (I look at Lynne Cheney and see Jacki Weaver, which probably wouldn’t work for the early scenes.) But recruiting people who resemble historical figures only goes so far, and that’s where the writing becomes crucial to the film’s success. Besides somewhat letting W off the hook for his complicity, McKay seems to get the central facts right while padding it with just the right amount of satirical creativity. Without the sharp screenplay, Vice might have been little more than a two-hour SNL sketch.
Bruce: This is the kind of movie that finds its audience, or vice versa, and I think we know who that audience is. After two viewings, I have to agree that the screenplay is sharp in the way it intends to be sharp, and the performances are worth a look. I'm not part of this movie's target audience, however, because I get little satisfaction out of McKay's skewering of the Cheneys, regardless of whether their actions deserve it. Dark comedy is fine when applied to the last Stuart monarch of England, but I find it merely self-serving in Vice. But if it makes you happy, by all means, enjoy. For me, it was a C-plus movie, and that largely because of the cast.
Christopher: I'd give it a B.
Edwin: Having now also watched Vice a second time, I remain impressed with McKay & Co.’s achievement —almost to the point that I want to inflate my grade to counteract all the undeserved vitriol that many big-name critics have tossed its way. But no, it was a B-plus film for me on the initial watch and it remains on that level.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Annapurna Pictures)