Adam McKay brings us an off-kilter movie about the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The movie is narrated by Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a soldier, as he discusses the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) as well as the impact his presence had on the Bush administration.
The film starts with an alcoholic Dick Cheney getting a DUI and being told to clean up his life by his wife, Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams). Later, Cheney works for the Nixon administration and discovers that the US secretly bombed Cambodia under the advice of Henry Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) ends up being distanced from Nixon, and Cheney, his intern, starts to fall out of grace, but then Nixon resigns and Rumsfeld is the Secretary of Defense and Cheney becomes White House Chief of Staff, due to them being the only members not really connected with the fallout.
After the Ford administration ends, Cheney has a heart attack and becomes a Congressman from Wyoming, mostly with his wife’s help, and starts to support a bunch of policies that blatantly help corrupt corporations gain lucrative positions and greater control over industries. Cheney serves as Secretary of Defense during the first Bush Administration, but then decides to retire from public life after finding out that his youngest daughter, Mary (Alison Pill), is a lesbian. He then becomes the head of Halliburton and becomes fabulously wealthy.
Cheney gets asked to be the running mate for George W. Bush (Sam “Regular or Extra Menthol” Rockwell) during the 2000 Presidential Election, which Cheney agrees to on the condition that he be allowed to have more power than a typical Vice President. Bush, not particularly caring about actually being President, agrees. As VP, Cheney brings Rumsfeld in as Secretary of Defense, David Addington (Don McManus) as legal counsel, and Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) as Chief of Staff. Together, they make all of the actual foreign policy and defense decisions in the administration. Then, 9/11 happens.
The movie depicts Cheney as using the attacks as a way to preside over the U.S. Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in numerous deaths and the rise of ISIS. Kurt, the narrator, served in the military during both of these invasions and witnessed killing of civilians and extrajudicial torture of prisoners. Meanwhile, Cheney has multiple heart issues which eventually put him on his deathbed. He says a tearful goodbye to his family, but Kurt is killed while jogging and his heart saves Cheney’s life.
At the end of the movie, Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe) wins her father’s seat in Congress after speaking out against gay marriage, leading Mary Cheney to leave the family. The film then breaks the fourth wall and has an angry Cheney state that he has no regrets about anything he’s done. A mid-credits scene depicts a focus group where a right-wing viewer calls the film biased and violently attacks a panelist who disagrees while most of the other panelists focus on upcoming action movies.
Okay, so, this was the movie that I least imagined would get nominated for an Oscar out of all of the nominees, even Black Panther. I didn’t think super highly of A Star Is Born, but I thought it was Oscar bait. BlacKkKlansman seemed like a shoo-in, same with Roma. Bohemian Rhapsody wowed me with spectacle in the theater, so it wasn’t until later that I realized “oh, this dialogue is actually kind of lousy.” Green Book had Mahershala Ali’s performance in a film that makes Hollywood feel good. The Favourite was a period piece with great costumes and three amazing leads and artistic angles, so that’s basically a gimme. This movie, though…
Adam McKay is a very talented director, ranging from Anchorman and Talladega Nights to The Big Short. He’s great at doing very stylized movies that have lots of solid comic elements, as well as occasional sudden shifts in tone or focus, like the “Afternoon Delight” scene in Anchorman or the multiple fourth-wall breaks to explain concepts in The Big Short. This movie has devices similar to those, but I think it went a little overboard on them while trying to handle a subject that it simultaneously wants to mock and also to take seriously. You have the framing device of the narrator, but also false endings, fourth wall breaks, the focus group, the double time shift from 9/11… it’s just a little too much structural mutation within a film that isn’t exactly sure what tone it wants to take. This film portrays horrible events and wants you to think about how horrible they are… but then makes a few one-liners about how ignorant Americans are. It’s not impossible to do both of these tones in one film, but I don’t think they quite pulled it off here.
The film presents Dick Cheney as both a wasted dropout who lucked into a job and also a brilliant schemer who essentially uses Machiavellian tactics to gain power and wealth, but it never really connects with how he can be both. Yes, people are multifaceted, that’s the beauty of dealing with real people rather than archetypes, but even with Bale’s great performance (and it is absolutely fantastic), Cheney only seems to be a series of shifting characters, not one man that is all of these things. It clearly says that he’s a bad person, and the film takes the stance that everything he does is pretty much awful, but saying “oh, hey, this humorously over-the-top villain is bad” is a little less subtle than Bale’s performance merited.
That said, every performance in this is amazing. Bale’s so good you wouldn’t even believe he’s the same guy who played Batman or Patrick Bateman, while Rockwell reminds us once again that he is an almost unbelievable talent. If you haven’t watched Moon or Seven Psychopaths, you’re missing out. Amy Adams is a national freaking treasure and should be treated as such. Steve Carell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Tyler Perry, all of them did amazing work. If there is one thing to be said about this, everyone was giving 110%.
My biggest complaint, though, and it’s a very personal one to me, is that this movie breaks one of my cardinal rules of filmmaking: It tells the audience that you’re wrong to not like it. It presents all the people who aren’t excited about the film as either vapid idiots who don’t care enough about the world to pay attention or angry idiots who are going to be pissed about the liberalism of Hollywood. Even if you were to believe both of those things, and you very well might, just acknowledging these people to mock them doesn’t ever do anything positive. If you believe that what you’re saying, even if it will be criticized, is still worth saying, THEN F*CKING SAY IT. Don’t try to pre-defend yourself by taking shots at your detractors, just say what you believe and stand by it.
Overall, I don’t dislike the movie, in fact I thought a lot of parts of it were good and inventive, but the structure was a little too messy for me to really think it was going to be an Oscar nominee. But maybe that’s why I only write for a few hundred people on the internet, rather than Time Magazine.
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