The too often comedic and fitfully dramatic retelling of the life and times of Vice President Dick Cheney is an explosion of wonderful acting, misguided directing, and fascinating history.
To begin, the acting is uniformly excellent. Lead by the incomparable Christian Bale, the ensemble is a who’s who of character actors devouring their roles. Bale is the best. He brings so much reality, gravitas, and deep inner life to his role as Cheney. There isn’t a second when he falls into mere mimicry or Acting with a capital “A”. Watching him thinking through and observing the others around him is riveting. His dialogue is often minimal, but Bale creates depth with his eyes and his movement. It’s a fantastic performance. Amy Adams is the next essential piece of this puzzle. She is fierce and powerful as a woman with deep desires in a time period when women weren’t allowed to have those desires or ambitions. She is right in step with Bale. A deep true inner life reflected through her eyes and behavior. Steve Carrell as Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W Bush are both excellent, but they are show pieces. Adams and Bale are given the most and do the most with what they are given.
The directing and writing is the problem with this film. Adam McKay wrote and directed the film. He is the man behind Anchorman. He has a warped and unique sense of humor. He injected that humor into his financial horror story The Big Short a few years ago. That film found inventive ways to utilize the medium of film to condense huge amounts of technical financial information into easily digestible chunks. He attempts something similar here, but his humor is at war with the material. The story he tells his deadly serious, but his direction insists on going for laughs. This neuters the dramatic impact of a lot of moments. It robs the film of gravitas. It undermines the truth of what we are seeing.
There are two moments that perfectly exemplify his directorial misguidedness… The first involves Adams and Bale in bed. The narrator of the film asks in voice over what must Cheney have been thinking in that moment. He then ponders what it would be like if people spoke in Shakespearean monologues. Bale and Adams then launch into faux Shakespearean speeches about what they are thinking. This is amusing, strange, and gets a laugh. However it doesn’t offer insight into the characters or the story. It’s just a flight of fancy that kind of works. The second moment comes late when Cheney and his team sit down to a fancy dinner. The waiter approaches with the specials. Instead of food he offers them a menu of unethical extremes; water boarding, patriot act surveillance, unlawful rendition, and on and on. They choose all of them. This is clever. It demonstrates the cavalier attitude of the administration with regard to personal rights and freedoms. It’s a really strong metaphor, but it doesn’t stick the landing. The fantasy of it is so jarring and there is no final conclusion or insight drawn from it. It simply ends with the punchline, “we’ll have all of them,” and it moves on. It breaks the verisimilitude of the movie and then dives back into the story proper without giving us a reason. You don’t have to break your movie in half in order to make that metaphor work, but he does in order to get the joke.
The history of this time period and the moments in time that made this man who he is and made his rise possible is unbelievably fascinating. It is riveting stuff. That makes it so unfortunate that they have to leave that history behind for the sake of jokes and random asides. What Cheney did to seize as much control as he did is incredible. To dramatize it in a film is a worthy and perhaps the best way to digest that history. Film can offer us insights into the man and create empathy for the situation and the world in which he exists. The best stretches of this film tell the shadowy history of how Cheney viewed the politics around him. With Bale’s excellent performance, and the riveting history those stretches are fantastic filmmaking and great movie going. However the film can’t get out of its own way.
It feels at times like a student film. The director of that film is not confident in his material, so he injects jokes and humor to keep people watching. It’s too bad.
In conclusion, this movie is half great, half okay. A letter grade – B It’s half a cup of tea anyway