Film of the week: Cheney's Vice grip on the US presidency
Christian Bale is superb as a vast and watchful puppet master in this livelypolitical satire, says Paul Whitington
Say what you like about Donald Trump, but at least he hasn't started a war yet.
Give him time, you might say, but by the same stage in George W Bush's first term, he had invaded Afghanistan and was busily plotting the downfall of Iraq. Or was he? The historical consensus on George W is that he was an affable country club type surrounded by a cabal of right-wing hawks that used him as cover to pursue a belligerent, conservative agenda. They were led by Dick Cheney, Bush's vice president - a grey man, almost invisible, who, for a time, ruled the United States by proxy.
That's the thesis vigorously proposed by Adam McKay in Vice. The writer/director's background is in comedy, but in The Big Short he used satire and nimble storytelling to provide an idiots' guide to the global financial crash of 2007-08. Vice attempts to do the same for the Bush/Cheney regime and its highly destructive foreign adventures. And while the results are not quite so impressive, this film is informative, entertaining, sometimes hilarious, and never dull.
Christian Bale, in one of those terrifyingly committed performances that make him the Robert De Niro of his generation, is the bold Mr Cheney, whom we first meet as he staggers around Wyoming in the early 1960s repairing telephone lines and doing his level best to drink the state dry. He's a sad sack, a college flunker, and his pretty young wife Lynne (Amy Adams) is not impressed. She's hugely ambitious, but realises that as a 1960s midwestern woman, she won't be able to do much of the go-getting herself. So she sits Dick down and reads him the riot act, warning him to get his act together or else. Ten years later, he's wheedled his way into the White House with the help of Richard Nixon's blow-hard economic adviser, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, replete with scary 'Rummy' teeth), and, after Nixon's fall, becomes chief of staff under Gerald Ford.
A topsy-turvy political career is underway, which will include stints in Congress, as republican House minority whip, and secretary of defence under George Bush Snr. But when 12 years of republican rule comes to a screeching halt after Bill Clinton is elected, the jig is up for Cheney, who retires from politics to begin a highly lucrative association with the Halliburton multinational oil company. And that ought to have been that. (Amusingly, McKay runs fake credits at this point as if to say that this is how history should have gone.) Instead, in 2000, Dick gets a call from George W Bush's election team, initially looking for advice about who to pick for vice president.
Bush Jnr will surprise many by selecting Cheney himself who, in this film at any rate, slithers into the White House and proceeds, cobra-like, to mesmerise 'Dubya' into doing his hawkish bidding.
Might the oil-steeped Dick have had ulterior motives for invading Iraq on a bogus premise? McKay certainly thinks so, and makes the point that the second Iraq War completely destabilised the entire Middle East, emboldened Iran, invented Islamic State and led to the deaths of over half a million Iraqis. All of which is hard to dispute if you sit down and think about it, but is this a film or a history lesson?
Actually, it's a bit of both. Memories are short when it comes to current affairs, and one should never underestimate America's flair for ignorance. When I interviewed McKay last week, he told me that he'd been accused of doctoring a Ronald Reagan clip in the film to make him say "let's make America great again": some people don't seem to know it was Reagan's slogan in the first place.
Bale's Cheney is an extraordinary creation, a lumbering predator who speaks quietly, watches everything and never misses a trick. All of the performance comes through the gurning, over-worked mouth, which slopes down on one side as though he's chewing jerky. And if it seems like a caricature, go on YouTube and watch the actual Dick - he really does talk like that.
Carell is very entertaining as the motor-mouthed Rumsfeld, Rockwell underplays it nicely as an affable, gullible George W, and Adams almost steals the show as the formidable Lynne. As a drama, Vice jumps about like a flea on a griddle, and is not always coherent, perhaps because McKay is trying heroically to cover a huge amount of ground.
It doesn't always work, and is a little long, but it's an honourable endeavour and I, for one, am very glad it got made.
Also releasing this week:Destroyer review: 'Kidman staggers through this woozy film with a stubborn sense of purpose'
Second Act review: 'Contrived and hackneyed, but also fun'
The Mule review: 'A return to form for Clint Eastwood'
Films coming soon...
Can You Ever Forgive Me (Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant); Green Book (Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen); How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, America Ferrera); Escape Room (Deborah Ann Woll).