Director Adam McKay (The Big Short) must be a huge fan of the political cartoons that appear in the opinion pages of newspapers, because his latest film, though very much live-action, has the tone of an extended, two-hour political cartoon. That approach to covering six decades in the life of Dick Cheney works great as entertainment but also leads to a structure that sometimes feels rushed and scattershot. The opening titles acknowledge how secretive Cheney is and therefore how difficult it is to know the entire story. McKay even feels compelled to print “we did our fucking best” at the end of this explanation, the first of the film’s many jokes. Considering that approach, the script might have been a little better if it focused on a particular segment in our lead character’s life rather than trying to cram every detail imaginable (most factual, some imagined) into two hours.
Dick Cheney is portrayed superbly here by Christian Bale, and the entire ensemble is blessed with incredible, Oscar worthy makeup. Amy Adams turns in another solid performance as Lynne Cheney, and it’s a shame when her presence decreases at around the halfway point, probably to make room for George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Steve Carrell, a very busy man this year, is also memorable as Donald Rumsfeld.
If you’ve seen The Big Short, you have an idea of how this will play out stylistically. Government lingo and complicated plot developments will be explained by actors either breaking the fourth wall or just appearing briefly to highlight key ideas to our main characters. Much of the film’s humor comes from these instances, though McKay tries a few new tricks in the film’s midsection. All of this will be quite jarring for those expecting a straightforward biopic, and that could explain the film’s opening day C grade from audiences polled by Cinemascore.
I didn’t learn much about Dick Cheney that I didn’t already know before seeing this film, but I was still captivated by watching this story unfold. I went into it expecting a mildly amusing two hour ad hominem, but I was surprised by the little moments that humanized Cheney, and that many of the attacks on him were constructive. The film takes some cheap shots, but it also justifies it’s anger throughout by showing the policy decisions he made that ruined a lot of lives. The film takes a critical look at his record representing Wyoming in the House of Representatives, a time in which, among other nay votes, he voted against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. That’s one of his lesser evils, though its pretty damn awful. The script is even more damming when it explores Cheney’s maneuvers as Vice President. These moves resulted in policies that allowed torture (in violation of the Geneva Convention) and led the U.S. to invade Iraq under false pretenses. That conflict cost more than 4000 American lives and caused the deaths of more than half a million Iraqi civilians.
This is a solid political film, one that takes on extra importance when you consider the lasting impact Cheney had on the executive branch and the erratic, impulsive and irrational behavior often displayed by the current occupant of the White House. It’s not a film that claims to be unbiased. McKay clearly despises Dick Cheney and is unapologetic about it, to the point of making his heart attacks a running joke. Yet, underneath all the jokes and criticisms, you get the feeling that McKay admires Cheney just a little bit. There’s no love in any second of this film for the despicable policies he helped enact, because there shouldn’t be. But there is a fascinating story here about one man’s thirst for power, how it impacted his family and how he overcame health issues and shifting political environments to make a lasting legacy. It’s unfortunate that he put in so much effort to cause so much damage to the country he worked for. It’s also one hell of a story.