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Cinema in Focus: ‘Vice’

3 Stars — Troubling

With a playful cinematic style that belies its disturbing subject matter, director and writer Adam McKay tells a tale of a power-hungry and greedy vice president named Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). Though he clearly admits that no one knows the truth within the mind or behind closed doors of Cheney’s rise to power, he posits what kind of man he must have been and creates a dark and troubling hypothesis.

Appropriately named Vice, the film starts in 1963 and follows Cheney until his daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) was elected the only representative of Wyoming to the U.S. House.

We walk with Cheney, serving as the running mate to President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), through a journey from being a person addicted to alcohol and dropping out of Yale, to the vice presidency as he began as a congressional intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to being on President Richard Nixon’s staff, to chief of staff for President Gerald Ford (Bill Camp), to CEO of Halliburton, to accepting the vice presidency on his own terms as he was given never-before-seen power and autonomy by President Bush. All of this was under the guiding eye and ambition of his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams).

The power of the film comes in part from McKay’s years as a writer for Saturday Night Live. The visual and script gags are inserted in obvious ways that not only cause comic relief but are a visual comedic narrative.

The story itself is told by a narrator we come to know throughout the film but do not understand his place in the story until the end. We also are provided with a wonderful Shakespearian scene written in the style of Lady Macbeth’s ambition when the narrator laments that we have no such soliloquy to know what the Cheneys said behind closed doors.

In another powerful cinematic technique near the end of the film as Cheney is being interviewed about his primary role in manipulating circumstances so that we went to war with Iraq causing a devastating loss of human life, he turns toward the camera and speaks directly at us, the audience. Having been lulled into seeing him as a monster, he proudly and forcefully explains that we and our families can sleep in peace because of his actions. Seeing the power of the presidency as needing no checks and balances, Cheney’s legal advisers created opinions to justify not only torture and the removal of rights, but claims to do so for our benefit.

In one final act of cinematic genius, during the credits the film jumps the wall again and has the actors in a focus group bring into the room the current divide between supporters of President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and their violent anger toward one another. It is funny, but it is all too familiar to stay that way.

The recognition that leaders can be harmful is the very definition of Vice both as a film and as a word. Moral depravity can come in all sizes and forms, and that was why our nation put in place checks and balances to protect both leaders from themselves and us from our leaders. That is a lesson this film clearly shows in its comedic/dramatic paradox.


» When the Cheneys’ daughter told them she had same-sex attraction, they were supportive as a family. But when their other daughter was losing the election in Wyoming because of this, they supported their daughter’s political ambition. How do you see their support as similar or as different for each of their daughters?

» The use of unitary executive theory to justify unlimited power for the president is still a possible legal opinion. In this film, Cheney is shown as having used that power behind closed doors. What do you think would happen if a sitting president publicly justified his or her action with this legal opinion?

» The ambition of a wife was portrayed by Lady Macbeth in alarming ways. How much do you think Lynne Cheney’s ambitious drive impacted the life of her husband and our nation? Would she have responded differently in a world where she would be affirmed as a leader and not need to work through her husband?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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