“Vice’s” Portrayal of Dick Cheney Drowns in Its Own Irony

Adam McKay’s Biopic of Former V.P. Begs for an Empathy It Doesn’t Deserve

Andrew Mello, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Falcon rating: 2/5

It wasn’t until I saw a weeping Dick Cheney choking out what was meant to be his dying words that I finally understood why I was so angry with Vice. It took the man until the possibility of death, and the end of the film, to feel the weight of his sins pour out in his tears, and to know that what he had done was wrong.

Writer and director Adam McKay chronicles the life and events of Cheney (played by a transformed Christian Bale) in an unorthodox way—not beginning with Cheney’s childhood or with his start in politics, but instead with his drunk driving arrest in the early ’60s. Filmmakers often claim that “the opening shot should tell you everything,” but the only thing the opening five minutes of Vice serve to show the audience is the power Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) has over the future Vice President.

We walk in at a low point of Cheney’s life: he had been kicked out of Yale and has been doing odd jobs for some time to keep the lights on. However, following a rousing speech from his wife, Cheney somehow pushes himself far enough until he finds himself as an aide to infamously Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, (played by a sharp-as-a-whip Steve Carrell) and over the course of his tenure he pieces together enough knowledge to kickstart his own career in DC, a change in path that would forever change history.

It’s a very quick transition from this meeting of two key players in the film that we find Rumsfeld suddenly ejected from Washington and Cheney finally earns his own office to kick his feet up. In a very crucial scene, Dick calls up his wife and two young children with the good news of his promotion, thanks her for pushing and supporting him, then hangs up the phone.

It’s in the maybe ten seconds afterward that Cheney’s true character is revealed, where after a quick exhale, he gets back to work like Mick Jagger hearing an encore, as if speaking to the audience, saying “You thought I was done?” Bale’s performance shines in this fleeting tableau, sharing with the audience an intimate portrait of a man who could never settle for enough power.

I wanted so much more from Vice, with an incredibly talented cast and director to bring it to life.

It was about the same time as this in the movie, right in the middle, that McKay made one of the worst calls I’ve seen in a while from any movie. One hour in, the film seems to be progressing normally, and then… a fake-out credits roll. My first reaction to this was confusion; my second was anger.

Up to this point, McKay’s choice to include jokes breaking up the political jargon felt like a toss-up between variety and indulgence, with many jokes existing for the same reason as in a better biopic, The Wolf Of Wall Street, keeping the pacing and your attention. But following this bizarre left turn of a joke, the movie tumbles to its own climax. Any nuance is dispatched for a tone more consistent with McKay’s previous work with Will Ferrell. The irony of this meta credit roll gag lies in the fact that I actually did wish the movie had ended there.

Sadly limping to the finish line, the latter half of the film sees Cheney’s rise to power as inarguably the most powerful Vice President in the history of the US, but this final act is portrayed like a screwball comedy, complete with a drunk, stumbling fool in the form of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). I could almost feel insulted when the film begged me to reinvest myself in Cheney’s story as he laid on the same deathbed the film had been on for the last hour.

I wanted so much more from Vice, with an incredibly talented cast and director to bring it to life, taking on the story of one of our lifetime’s most prominent figures. However in the end what was delivered reminds me of a trust fund billionaire given all the right tools and resources just to squander it all.


This piece also appears in our January 2019 print edition.