Adam McKay (2018)
“Facts are stubborn things,” Ronald Reagan once famously observed. I wonder if the Great Communicator could have foreseen how, within a generation of his presidency, his own party would put into power a man whose version of reality is so often violently at odds with actual facts—one who, in the last week, for example, told combat troops that he had personally locked in for them a 10 percent raise (when in fact they were getting a scheduled 2.9 percent raise guaranteed them annually by Congress), and that the former president lived in a house surrounded by a 10-foot wall, when such a claim could obviously be disproved by looking at the house. That his supporters believe what the current president says anyway would have been inconceivable in Reagan’s era, but today such things are made possible by vehicles like FOX News and other outlets—vehicles that came into being only by the abolishment of the government requirement that news sources give both sides of political issues “equal time.” And one of the people behind that particular deregulation? Congressman, later Vice President, Dick Cheney.
Cheney, of course, is the subject of the new movie by Adam McKay (The Big Short) called, ironically, Vice. You probably don’t have to be told that it’s not called that only because its subject became the Vice President. The film has been getting mixed reviews from audience members, some of whom think it’s the greatest movie of the year, and some of whom are ranting about how awful it is. How many of the ranters have actually seen the movie is a legitimate question, but that’s the case with a lot of films these days: People who think they would have objections to a certain movie for one reason or another based on advance comments about it will go on rottentomatoes.com and blast a film they’ve never seen. But I’m pretty sure in this case that someone who thinks he or she is going to vehemently dislike this movie is probably right. So it’s surprising to me that the person feeling this way would actually go see Vice. But assuming that some of these haters did sit through the film, their biggest complaint is that it’s a bunch of lies.
Now McKay makes it clear at the beginning of the movie that the facts in the story are as accurate as he could make them, but much is not known because Cheney was one of the most secretive public figures in history. But the chief negative events depicted in the film—the rush to attack Iraq after 9/11 based on incomplete and unreliable intelligence; Colin Powell’s hesitancy about the plan and regret over his speech before the United Nations; the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the disregarding of the “quaint” rules of the Geneva convention and the argument that the United States does not torture, therefore what it was doing to prisoners was by definition not torture; the no-bid contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq granted to Haliburton (the company for which Cheney served as CEO)—are matters of public record. Much of the rest of the film consists of private conversations that clearly are imagined, since it would be impossible to know what happened at such times; or purely fanciful scenes, like one in which Alfred Molina appears in a cameo as a waiter offering Cheney and his pals a menu of delicious ways to twist the Constitution, or another in which Cheney and his wife Lynne engage in a mock-Shakespearean dialogue a la Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Since no one would mistake such scenes as anything but parody, I imagine the viewers must be referring to the actual facts as lies, something which can only happen in a post-truth universe in which it’s already been decided that if it wasn’t on FOX News it can’t be true.
And this, as far as I can tell, is the point of McKay’s movie: This world in which we now live is the product of the political career of Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Though that conclusion may be debatable, it’s difficult to find fault with the evidence. The way it’s presented, of course, may be offensive to some people, since McKay’s tone throughout is satirical and generally without any respect for the former VP. Still, there are moments in the film where Cheney comes across as sympathetic, even admirable, most notably in his confrontation of his wife Lynne’s abusive father at her mother’s funeral, and in his immediate and unconditional acceptance of his daughter’s sexual orientation when she comes out to her parents. These are private, family moments, and McKay seems to suggest that Cheney, as a good husband and father, may have done better in life had he stayed out of the public sector altogether. There is even a scene in which the filmmakers give a mock ending after bringing us to the point of Bill Clinton’s election, narrating how Cheney retired to rest on his laurels as his wife Lynne wrote scholarly books on history.
There are things about the film a viewer might object to, but it’s not the politics, which are up front and obvious—what you see is what you get here. No, the difficulties with Viceare structural: Like McKay’s previous critically acclaimed The Big Short, Viceis full of gimmicks, and has less a linear narrative than a collage of scenes that are almost set pieces, some, as I’ve said, completely fictionalized or imagined, some serious, some farcical, all aiming to give some insight into the man who remains, even in the end, an enigma. This seems to be McKay’s style, but whether it works as well in what is essentially a biopic as it did in his expose about the 2008 financial crisis will strike different viewers differently.
What is certain is that Christian Bale (who worked with McKay on The Big Short), nearly unrecognizable after putting on a load of weight (reportedly 40 pounds) and working in impressive makeup that makes him the spitting image of the former vice president, gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. He reproduces Cheney’s mannerisms, his deadpan expression, and his twisted smile, and his growling Batman-style voice is close enough to Cheney’s grumbling snarl to make us forget its Bale and think we’re watching Cheney himself. He is complemented by Amy Adams (a McKay veteran from Talladega Nights) as a blonde-wigged Lynne Cheney, the straight-laced power behind the throne. She shines as Cheney’s own Lady Macbeth, whom the film depicts as a stalwart tower of strength who—as the young Cheney bounces around as an aimless, drunken, bar-fighting lineman and Yale dropout in Wyoming—straightens the lost boy out with a come-to-Jesus in which she tells him to clean up his act or she’s gone.
Steve Carell (another alumnus of The Big Short) turns in a performance as a strangely eccentric Donald Rumsfeld who becomes Cheney’s mentor, and apparently turns him into a Republican while the young Cheney is a congressional intern, and the two work together in political chicanery through the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush I administrations. In a telling and presumably apocryphal scene, Cheney asks Rumsfeld what exactly they are supposed to believe in, and gets only a dismissive laugh in answer. Rumsfeld and his disciple Cheney, McKay seems to suggest, are motivated solely by a thirst for power, rather than by any conservative political principles.
To this mix addOscar-winner Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who plays a completely clueless George W. Bush, agreeing to let the Vice President take the lead on things like foreign policy and budgetary concerns. It’s hard to see this characterization as anything other than satirical hyperbole. But it ispretty funny.
The film is held together by a generally chronological arrangement of scenes, and by everyman narrator Jesse Plemons, who seems to be everywhere—as everything from a soldier on the ground in Iraq to a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He’s a choral figure who sees Cheney from the outside, like the audience, and understands him no better than we do. In the end that gray indeterminacy is all we see of the “real” Cheney. Like a Michael Moore film, some people will leave the theater satisfied with that. Some people won’t. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one, based mostly on the performances.
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When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.
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