Donnerstag, 7. Februar 2019


John Ford's underappreciated 1958 film The Last Hurrah, which stars Spencer Tracy as an ever-scheming city politician, features the line, "I prefer an engaging rogue to a complete fool."

It's hard not to feel that statement reverberate throughout Vice, writer-director Adam McKay's satirical but curiously reverential biopic about former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney – for whatever one's political bend might be, there's no denying that the man's biography is nothing if not engaging.

Starting out as an alcoholic Yale dropout in the early 1960s, Cheney, played by an impressively made-up Christian Bale, quickly weasels his way into the Nixon administration's inner circle – making a powerful friend in Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) along the way – and subsequently, with the help of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), becomes a mainstay of Republican politics for the better part of 40 years.

There is no question that a traditional biopic would be ill-suited to do justice to Cheney's life, inextricably linked as it is to creative interpretations of the law, shady political manoeuvres, and straight-up racketeering. How could the career of a man who facilitated the rise of Donald Trump by all but formally enshrining the unchecked accumulation of power in the Republican agenda – and who today is perhaps best remembered not for his key role in starting the Iraq War but for shooting a man in the face – be the basis to anything else than a caustic black comedy?

But even though Vice takes an earnest and often amusing stab at this, it ends up delivering on none of its promises. On the one hand, it builds up Cheney as a Richard III-style antihero while still attempting to find the humanity beneath his partisan and corporatist exterior. The problem with this approach, however, is that neither Bale's broad, boisterously superficial performance nor McKay's sardonic script are cut out for this, skimping on the emotional detail that would be crucial to make, say, the episodes about Cheney's relationship with his gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) work.

Under George W. Bush, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) becomes arguably the most powerful U.S. Vice President in history.
© Ascot Elite
The satire, meanwhile, is far too dependent on the self-aware quirks McKay has carried over from his Oscar-winning Wall Street comedy The Big Short (2015). Instead of a consistent comedic through line, Vice offers a discordantly arranged collection of busily edited skits and ideas, some of which work, many of which don't. A perfectly cast Sam Rockwell is wasted as George W. Bush because the script doesn't know what to do with him. Scenes like Alfred Molina presenting Cheney and his cronies with a menu of war crimes or Bale and Adams spontaneously breaking out in Shakespearean dialogue seem less like bold creative choices and more like desperate attempts to jazz up the decidedly uncinematic backroom dealings that eventually led to events of historical significance.

In the end, the movie tries to be and do too many things at once to fulfil even its most basic ambition – making the case that Cheney is the architect of America's current democratic crisis. The final litany, even though it is largely correct about which ills it blames on the VP, feels like a reach because the rest of the film is more concerned with cramming in clever ideas than with endowing the power games on show with an adequate sense of consequence. What we end up with is the story of an engaging rogue, told by fools, signifying nothing.


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