The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as vice president to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
Vice is a play on words, and director Adam McKay treats it as such. Is it short for vice president of the United States, the office Dick Cheney held in the George W. Bush administration? Or is it simply vice, as in the opposite of virtue, which is undoubtedly the way McKay paints Cheney’s lust for unchecked power?
Kicked in the hiney by his future wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and shaped by President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Cheney plods and plots in this biopic, going from drunk-driving, college dropout to a man being hustled to safety by the Secret Service as the 9/11 attacks are taking place. After rising through the ranks—U.S. Representative from Wyoming, White House chief of staff, secretary of defense—Cheney had designs on the presidency itself in 1996, but opted against it when he feared his lesbian daughter would be used as a political punching bag in the gay-marriage debate. The credits start to scroll, and … we’ve been faked out. The movie’s not nearly over. The meat is yet to come. What Cheney did not obtain officially, the movie suggests, he shrewdly procured as a “ghost,” behind the scenes. Donald Rumsfeld, portrayed quirkily by Steve Carell, aids in Cheney’s decades-long ascendance.
This undeniably partisan flick breaks no new ground. There were always theories about a shadow presidency during the Bush administration, where Cheney pulled all the strings while Bush was more figurehead than free-world leader, and this movie plays to that audience. It goes so far as to suggest Cheney was blind cc’d on all Bush’s emails and gave presidential go-ahead for military decisions in which the president never was consulted.
Cheney is portrayed as a proponent of what constitutional law experts refer to as the “unitary executive theory” and stretches it to the idea that whatever the commander-in-chief does or orders to be done can never be illegal. The movie suggests this is important to Cheney—once reluctant to be Bush’s running mate because the VP was “mostly a symbolic job”—because he would find the way to make more of the position than just someone “who sits around waiting for the president to die.”
Whether you believe that or not likely depends on which side of the political aisle represents you. This much, however, is beyond debate: Christian Bale makes for a believable Dick Cheney, but two hours of Dick Cheney hardly makes for a scintillating cinematic experience. Even the movie offhandedly acknowledges as much. In the passages where his wife, Lynne, is campaigning throughout his home state of Wyoming for his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, she comes off far more compelling than he.
The real-life Cheney, who smoked for 20 years, has survived five heart attacks and the movie shows him having four because, well, we get the point. In one, we actually see a black-and-white picture of a heart beating erratically with a clogged artery. The picture is real, but it isn’t of Cheney’s heart. The ticker belongs to McKay, who suffered a heart attack himself shortly after wrapping up the film, retrieved the diagnostic footage from his doctor and included it. Never let it be said that McKay didn’t put his heart into his work.
This leads us to the narrator, maybe the movie’s most interesting twist. The whole story is told through the eyes of the unknown dead person whose heart was transplanted into Cheney back in 2012, when the former vice president was 71. The movie calls him “Kurt,” (Jesse Plemons) but the truth of the matter is even Cheney doesn’t know who it was or if the donor was male. It hasn’t been revealed.
What we do know is the movie doesn’t sanitize the characters’ language. It comes by its R-rating honestly, with the Lord’s name being taken in vain on multiple occasions, other profanities and a few scenes of violence. As such, it doesn’t merit Dove approval.