‘Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest… he strikes.’ It’s a quote attributed to ‘Anonymous’ that appears at the end of an eleven-minute introduction, just ahead of the film’s opening titles.
Up until that point, every second of those introductory eleven minutes is packed with information that is nothing short of fascinating, particularly if you’re a political news junkie. Its style, with its quick edits, a voice-over narration (Jesse Plemons), and facts that fly at you one after another, sets the tone for everything the lies ahead in the new biographical comedy/drama from director Adam McKay, Vice, the story of businessman and politician Dick Cheney.
It begins in 1963. By a dirt road somewhere near Casper, Wyoming, after a night spent gambling and drinking with the boys, a drunken young driver is pulled over by the cops. Once he’s asked to step out of the car, a youthful Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) opens the door and stumbles, practically falling on his hands and knees to the ground.
“The times I have to drag you out of that jail like a filthy hobo!” declares an angry young wife (Amy Adams, simply superb as Cheney’s wife, Lynne). “You already got your ass thrown out of Yale for drinking and fighting. You are a big, fat, piss-soaked zero!”
But rather than continue with a lengthy family confrontation, the film cuts ahead to 9/11 as the White House staff, led by Vice President Cheney, is rushed down into the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. On the phone with the president, who was returning from a presidential Florida trip, Cheney advises the country’s leader to stay in the air while informing him that he, Cheney, has requested congressional leadership. It’s a telling move. As the film informs us, Dick Cheney, considered to be the most powerful VP in American history, changed the course of history, and he did it like a ghost with most people having no idea who he was or where he came from.
After cutting back once again to Cheney’s younger days while working as a Wyoming linesman, the narrator puts Cheney’s early adult days into perspective. “Back then they would’ve called a guy like him a ne’er do well. In today’s parlance, I think they just call him a dirtbag.”
After the credits, where Cheney’s draft orders for the Army are granted a ‘3-A’ status, an extreme hardship to dependents deferment, the film wastes no time in ushering the early days of Cheney’s political internship program of ‘68.
It’s while there, working for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) that Cheney’s future ambitions are formed, based on Rumsfeld’s three rules 1) Keep your mouth shut. 2) Do as you are told. And 3) Always, always be loyal. “Your two DUIs came up on your transcript,” Rumsfeld tells his new lackey. “Don’t worry. I vouched for you.” Then adds. “You owe me.” The so, so student and the mediocre athlete had found his life’s calling. “He would be a dedicated and humble servant… to power,” states the narrator.
Like the satire of McKay’s previous film The Big Short where the director presented an initial false conclusion on how things should have ended, he does something similar here. Only instead of keeping it for the film’s final few moments, that false ending with a logical finale comes at the film’s halfway mark. After a series of heart problems and his political ambitions coming to a sudden stop once Jimmy Carter won the election, it would only be sensible that Dick Cheney would enter into retirement, enjoy his money from being Halliburton’s CEO, go fishing, take things easy, and leave well enough alone. The film even starts to roll cast credits. Then a phone call brings the serenity of a peaceful later life to a grinding halt.
The film’s second half takes us on that wild ride of George W. Bush’s time in office, with Cheney as Dubya’s Vice President, a position that would bring him more power than anyone who had ever held that position could imagine. As the narrator informs, “One of Dick Cheney’s superpowers was the ability to make the most wild and extreme ideas sound measured and professional.”
While juxtaposing between fishing and throwing bait on the end of a tackle as he pitches thoughts to a green George W. (Sam Rockwell) Cheney lets the young Bush know that if a Vice Presidency position is on the cards, there would have to be changes to the role. He would need to oversee bureaucracy, manage the military, energy, and foreign policy. “That sounds good,” agrees Bush. Cut back to that fishing line reeling in its catch.
And if you’re in the present-day camp that remains concerned that our current president refuses to hand over his tax papers, consider the always unapologetic Dick Cheney. Once he became VP, the film points out that he never filled out his own 83-question questionnaire for the position, never handed over his full medical records, nor his corporate or tax filings. “Nothing,” states the narrator. A ghost, indeed.
There’s a captivating spell that Christian Bale throws over you that can’t fail to keep you riveted. His performance from a young Cheney to the man we know today is all-encompassing. The older he becomes, with the actor’s build, his slight hunch, the growl of his always low-key voice, even the way he walks and holds himself, the more Cheney emerges. And make no mistake. This is not a performance that relies solely on makeup and a change of appearance. Bale disappears. You’re never less than convinced you’re seeing the real man. It’s exceptional work.
In keeping with both the satire and the fast-paced rhythms of director McKay’s The Big Short, Vice is packed with scene after revealing scene that brings us closer to finding out what Dick Cheney was (and presumably still is) all about; at least, as far as it can. As the opening title indicates, the following is a true story or as true as it can get, given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history.
Yet, unlike The Big Short where the sprawling narrative incorporated a huge ensemble of players, Vice is centered on the one character. The ensemble of famous names and faces circle around him. By narrowing the focus, the end result has considerable more coherence. It’s funny, frustrating, upsetting, and hugely entertaining, and certainly Andy McKay’s most accomplished work to date.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 132 Minutes