Adam Mckay’s Vice, nominated for six academy awards, does more to humanise Dick Chaney than to worsen his public image. While enjoyable, the film feels as if it were made in layers that, unfortunately, do not fit together in the end. Instead of talking about Vice as the singular product that it isn’t, I thought it would be fairer and more interesting to talk about the many faces of Dick.
"Dick the family man"
Christian Bale’s portrayal of George W. Bush’s vice-president was, as to be expected, outstanding. Bale gained twenty kilograms of pure fat to physically morph into the doughy body of the infamous bureaucratic, just the latest in his extraordinary on-screen body transformations. Bale’s portrayal of Chaney is not a two-dimensional one, instead showing Dick as a man with struggles, shortfalls, and a great number of admirable qualities. In a similar vein, Amy Adams' interpretation of Lynn Chaney, Dick Chaney’s wife, shows a strong, intelligent, and ambitious woman in a time, place, and political context in which such qualities were certainly not advocated. The relationship between these two is often moving. Dick’s ambition was instilled in him by, and for, Lynn, transforming him from a college drop with a drinking problem into the youngest chief of staff in history in a space of eleven years. In many ways, I admired this version of Dick Chaney. He put behind his drunken undergraduate days, moved on from his part-time post-graduation, dead-end job, and turned the love for his long-term partner into the drive needed to improve his lot in life. God bless Dick!
"The Dick at work"
Bale’s characterisation of Chaney as a loving family man as well as a cold, ruthless power broker contains no contradiction. Dick’s moral sphere seems to end with the members of his immediate family, seemingly approaching the suffering of others with a kind of nihilistic detachment. His mentor, the charismatic and terrifying Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell, harnesses this disregard for others in the arbitrary and brutal game of politics. I thought this was the strongest element of the film. Instead of presenting Chaney as a Macbeth pressed on by an ambitious spouse to commit heinous deeds in the name of power, in the background of the decades of political transitions, Chaney simply unfurls into his truest Dick. This is not a story of moral decline; instead it is one of becoming. There are no real surprises at any given point in this journey, however, seeing the evolution of a power-hungry intern trying to prove himself into a power-hungry vice-president trying to consolidate power is oddly satisfying to watch.
"The Heart of Dickness"
The film is narrated by (spoiler alert) Dick Chaney’s heart donor in a kind of Desperate Housewives meets political YouTuber running commentary. Despite the heavy-handed metaphor of his heart telling him that he is a Dick, I thought it was quite funny in places. The fourth wall smashing explanations of the legal debates surrounding presidential powers was certainly preferably to having to keep up with organic exposition. My issue with the narrator is that he is comfortable mocking Chaney in a way that seems out of step with the begrudging admiration that Bale brings to the role and the script necessitates. It would not be fair to say that the narrator is a proxy for the director given that the heart donor is something of a character in the film with their own ‘average American’ perspective on Chaney. As far as I can tell, Chaney and his heart are both characters in the same universe. All this adds up to the strange situation in which it feels like the director and the narrator are wrestling over the film, one trying to make a neutral biopic and the other aiming for character assassination while Dick Chaney quietly organises the invasion of Iraq.
Ultimately, while Dick Chaney may be an easier target than his buddy’s face while hunting, the film utterly misses the point. I went into this film already hating Chaney for his role in Iraq, for his unaccountability, for his bureaucratic brand of evil, yet somehow this film managed to show me the more redemptive side of Dick Chaney. If anything, Vice took a relatively unknown and hated figure and managed to make them more likable.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor