Dick Cheney biopic Vice reeks of moral ambivalence

by James Robins / 30 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Vice dick cheney biopic

Vice is enormous, gratuitous, riotous fun, but should slapstick comedy be made from a story of atrocity?

Without stooping to hyperbole, former US Vice President Dick Cheney is one of the authors – if not the definitive scribe – of perhaps the greatest crime of the 21st century: the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The consequences of that needless war still resonate today, as do the political choices made long before the tanks started rolling across the desert.

Lying is foundational to politics – Donald Trump is no innovator here, just an accomplished stylist of fibs – and Cheney’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” theory is one of the largest porkies of them all. The Bush-era VP swelled half-truths, cherry-picked intelligence reports, hearsay and ideological arrogance into a surreal fantasy of imminent threat.

What, then, are we to make of Adam McKay’s new biopic about Dick Cheney? First of all, it’s fun. Enormous, gratuitous, riotous fun. In his last film, The Big Short, McKay turned the onset of the 2008 Great Recession into a jape and here, too, Cheney’s rise from alcoholic dropout to bureaucrat supremo is jaunty and spirited.

Christian Bale throws around an impressively authentic paunch in the role, astutely capturing the gruff, clenched-teeth halting growl of his voice, the lipless grimace, the unscrupulous instinct, the calculating bloody-mindedness.

We see his boozy youth, a correctional scolding at the hands of wife Lynne (Amy Adams), and a rise through the doomed Nixon White House. Alongside later co-conspirator Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Cheney used Watergate as a springboard to become Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. From there, it’s a quick ladder-climb to Secretary of Defence and finally, duping fellow ex-boozer George Dubya (Sam Rockwell) into gaining the vice presidency.

For McKay, the fourth wall does not exist. His trademark is dense artifice and heady irony. Any person or situation that can be milked for a joke will be squeezed dry. Characters narrate directly to a knowing audience. McKay has an admirably punky attitude, too: who else would “end” a film halfway through with a sarcastic credits sequence, deploy Naomi Watts in a mere cameo, or use a soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice as pillow talk?

By no means is this a fawning biopic. Throughout, Cheney is variously labelled a “filthy hobo”, a “big, fat, piss-soaked zero”, and a “cold sonofabitch”. But the irony can often obscure and distort the seriousness with which McKay is ultimately approaching his subjects. Again, as with The Big Short, which turned Wall St opportunists into savant-like antiheroes and shrugged at their victims, an air of ethical ambivalence clings to Vice.

There’s something instinctively icky in making a slapstick comedy about war crimes; as if pantomime villains deserved our applause and morality and good conscience were virtues best ignored. It’s worth remembering: this is fundamentally a story of torture and atrocity, not an episode of Veep.



This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Why The Hustle has no sting
106053 2019-05-22 00:00:00Z Movies

Why The Hustle has no sting

by James Robins

A gender-swapping redo of a con-man comedy doesn't make good on its promise.

Read more
John Campbell sits down for Breakfast, with nothing to eat
105720 2019-05-22 00:00:00Z Television

John Campbell sits down for Breakfast, with nothin…

by Diana Wichtel

John Campbell on TVNZ’s Breakfast. There was a time when the idea would have seemed preposterous.

Read more
Conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals act happier. Here's why
105463 2019-05-22 00:00:00Z Psychology

Conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals ac…

by Marc Wilson

Much of the work on happiness is based on surveys, but what happens if we examine what people actually do?

Read more
Fresh tips in suspected cold case murder of Auckland teen
106082 2019-05-21 00:00:00Z Crime

Fresh tips in suspected cold case murder of Auckla…

by Donna Chisholm

Police are following up several new tips in the suspected cold case murder of Auckland teen Joanne “Joe” Chatfield.

Read more
Families witness as Pike River mine re-entry attempt begins
106112 2019-05-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

Families witness as Pike River mine re-entry attem…

by RNZ

The Pike River re-entry team steps through the double airlock doors today, watched by families of the 29 men who died in the 2010 tragedy.

Read more
How the Republican Party is effectively placing Donald Trump above the law
106064 2019-05-21 00:00:00Z World

How the Republican Party is effectively placing Do…

by Paul Thomas

The Republicans' strategy of not co-operating with Congress is undermining the system of checks and balances enshrined in the US Constitution.

Read more
NZ Listener and North & South win at NZ's top media awards
106058 2019-05-20 00:00:00Z Innovation

NZ Listener and North & South win at NZ's top medi…

by Noted

New Zealand's leading current affairs magazines pick up Voyager Media Awards.

Read more
Dancing with the Stars is a parable for democracy in the age of Trump
106060 2019-05-20 00:00:00Z Television

Dancing with the Stars is a parable for democracy…

by Diana Wichtel

The people have spoken on the hit TV dance-off and we deserve everything we get.

Read more