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The Fresh Cheney Biopic Fails to Condemn

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VICE, a political biopic starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, opened Christmas Day in wide release and enjoys the distinction of being the 2018 film nominated for the most Golden Globes. Its six nominations include Picture (musical or comedy), Director (Adam McKay), Actor (Bale), Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), and Screenplay. The three acting nominations are well-deserved.

The film is a close tonal relative of McKay's most recent film, The Big Short, which also tackled 21st century American history and received wide critical acclaim. But McKay's gimmicky explanatory style, which sometimes drifts into effective satire, left me wholly unsatisfied as a commentary on one of the most bloodthirsty imperialists in American history. Vice is no evisceration of Cheney. It hardly even rises to the level of an SNL sketch as a comedic skewering. If anything, it's a sympathetic portrait, dominated by powerhouse actors who, by virtue of their talent, humanize the subjects they portray.

Bale, in particular, is an uncanny physical simulacrum of the bald and paunchy vice president. As George W. Bush, Rockwell doesn't disappear as entirely, but he channels the president's gregarious stupidity. When Cheney agrees to run alongside Bush on the condition that he take a more active, less ceremonial role as VP — he wants to oversee a few things personally: you know, the military, energy, foreign relations, small stuff — Bush nods happily while sucking on a chicken wing. It portrays what we already know, that Cheney was the evil mastermind of the Bush White House and Bush was the electable frat boy with whom, it was often said, anyone would enjoy having a beer.

If there is a "moral" to this tale, it is that the lust for executive power as embodied by Cheney is utterly void of ideology. That it is void of morality goes without saying. Cheney himself is an empty vessel. As a young intern in Congress, he announces that he's a Republican moments after a speech by Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), mostly because he thought he was funny. Shortly thereafter, he earnestly asks Rumsfeld, "What do we believe?" And Rumsfeld laughs in his face. He closes his office door and Carrell's cackling continues until the scene changes. What a hoot!

In what might be considered the film's moral climax, Cheney must advise his daughter on a key political stance, and his decision, I guess, is meant to be a nail in a coffin. Even the one thing Cheney supposedly believes in, he is willing to sacrifice.

But for the most part, we get gimmicks: a scene performed as a Shakespearean drama — terrific parody, to be honest; the orchestration of Iraqi destruction via steakhouse menu; charts and graphs explaining the "Unitary Executive Theory" and so forth.

When Bush announces the Iraqi invasion in March 2003, we watch him reading from a teleprompter. Then the camera tilts down and we see his shaking leg. Then we cut to Baghdad, where we see a man, huddled with his family beneath a table. His leg shakes, too, before they are bombed into oblivion. The Bush/Cheney story should not be a "musical or comedy."

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