Monday 17 June 2019

Vice movie review: 'Christian Bale’s Cheney is an extraordinary creation - if it seems like caricature check out the real Dick on YouTube'

3 stars

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (Annapurna Pictures)
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (Annapurna Pictures)
Paul Whitington

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 his first term George W. Bush 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, ultramontanist agenda. They were led by Dick Cheney, Bush’s Vice President, a grey man who for a time ruled the US 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, never dull.

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in Vice
Amy Adams and Christian Bale in Vice

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 blowhard economic advisor, 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 House minority whip, and Secretary of Defense under George Bush Senior. 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.

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 Junior 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 George W. into doing his hawkish bidding.

Might the oil-steeped Dick have had ulterior motives for invading Iraq on a bogus premise? Mr. 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 Adam McKay last week, he told me that he’d been accused of doctoring a Ronald Reagan clip in the film to make the Gipper say ‘let’s make America great again’: some people don’t seem to know it was Reagan’s slogan in the first place.

Christian 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, and if it seems like a caricature go on YouTube and watch the actual Dick - he really does talk like that.

Steve Carell is very entertaining as the motor-mouthed Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell underplays it nicely as an affable, gullible George W., and Amy 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 Mr. McKay is trying heroically to cover a huge amount of ground. But it’s an honourable endeavour and I for one am very glad it got made.

(15A, 132mins)

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'

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