Be­hind those Dick moves

Cheney biopic is a black com­edy about how Bush’s sec­ond fid­dle called the tune.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - VICE di­rected by Adam McKay

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, clenched­teeth 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. IN CINE­MAS NOW James Robins

Need­less war: Chris­tian Bale as Dick Cheney and Sam Rock­well as Ge­orge W Bush in Vice.

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