In the cold open of the January 27, 2018, episode of “Saturday Night Live,” guest star Will Ferrell, as former President George W. Bush — whom he had portrayed during his tenure as a regular cast member — addressed Bush’s rise in popularity since the beginning of the Trump Administration.
“I just want to address my fellow Americans and remind you guys that I was pretty bad,” Ferrell’s Bush said. “Like, historically not good.”
The new film “Vice,” produced by Ferrell and written and directed by his frequent collaborator, Adam McKay, seems intent on offering a similar corrective to Bush-era nostalgia, and, more broadly, a reminder that the rightward turn of American politics is not a new or recent phenomenon. The film is a political and personal biography of former Vice President Dick Cheney. (More from Ferrell’s Bush: “If you all knew half of what Ol’ Dick Cheney was up to, you’d take ‘No Cakes for Gays’ in a heartbeat!”)
The film follows Cheney (Christian Bale) and his rise from a Wyoming lineman kicked out of Yale to the upper echelons of power in the American government. Pushed by his ambitious wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), Cheney cleans up his act and begins his Washington career as an intern for Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, in an effectively grating performance.) He follows Rumsfeld, his future subordinate, into staff positions in the Nixon White House. From there, he runs for Congress from Wyoming (with Lynne making campaign appearances on his behalf after his first heart attack) and eventually rises to Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush. When the latter’s eldest son (Sam Rockwell, in a performance that somehow feels both exaggerated and exactly right) seeks the presidency himself, Cheney retires from his position as CEO of Halliburton to serve as his running mate. (Originally, he was in charge of the running mate search.)
“Vice” has received a great deal of positive buzz. Its reviews have been favorable, it is nominated for several Golden Globe Awards, and is expected to be an Oscar contender. Much of this praise is deserved. Bale has been criticized for being overly devoted to his craft. (Witness his infamous rant on the set of “Terminator Genisys.”) Whatever one things of his approach to acting, it serves him well here. He disappears into the role of Cheney, copying his verbal and physical mannerisms with uncanny accuracy.
The film is related in a playful style, narrated by Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a war veteran who comes to play an integral part in Cheney’s story. On numerous occasions, characters break the fourth wall and address the audience, and several key scenes are staged as surreal set pieces. Two minutes after I made a mental note to myself that Adams’s Lynne was being presented as a modern Lady Macbeth, a scene takes place in the Cheneys’ bedroom, shortly after Cheney’s meeting with the younger Bush, where he is first offered the VP slot. The two discuss his future plans in iambic pentameter Shakespearean verse. (I’m not kidding.)
There are brief, graphic glimpses of “renditionings” and “enhanced interrogations” — products of Cheney’s novel view of executive authority — as well as the carnage of the Iraq War, the product of Cheney’s fixed intelligence. These moments are jarring and resonant, despite or, perhaps because of, the comic tone chosen by the filmmakers. Some of the most-valuable scenes in the film illustrate how focus groups and right-wing media were used to manufacture support for fossil fuel subsidies and tax cuts for the wealthy, among other policies. The film depicts several key scenes from the Cheney family history, such as the infamous early-2006 incident when Cheney shot Texas lawyer Harry Whittington in the face during a Texas hunting trip. If you, years later, still find it hard to process that Whittington apologized to Cheney for any hardships the incident caused him, you’re not the only one. The film shows the family’s reaction to Cheney’s youngest daughter, Mary, coming out as a lesbian. Dick and Lynne pledge their unconditional support, but on the campaign trail, Cheney refuses to take up the issue. Liz Cheney, the older daughter, who now holds her father’s old Wyoming at-large Congressional seat, later goes on the record as supporting a federal marriage amendment.
“Vice” is among the stronger American films of 2018. It deserves to be seen both for its depiction of recent political history and for the philosophical quandary it raises about the current state of American life. Consider the facts of the story in a vacuum: with the support of his family, a man overcomes substance abuse and health problems to rise to top positions in business and politics, holding steadfastly to his beliefs, regardless of widespread opposition. How many “All-American success stories” have we seen with his description, or something similar? The preceding seems like it might be a pitch for a 1940s Frank Capra comedy-drama. The most-valuable and provocative question posed by “Vice” is: what does it say about American life that an American success story yields a career like Dick Cheney’s?