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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Vice’: a caustic study of a private public man

My latest review for Spokane Public Radio was of "Vice," Adam McKay's study of former Vice President Dick Cheney, which I've transcribed below. It's not an easy film to gauge with a flip of your thumb. In fact, it's exactly the kind of film that provokes animated discussion, especially at a bar over beers — which is what I tried to express in my review:

As I’ve said many times, the five most dangerous words in Hollywood are “based on a true story.” Because truth, as every philosopher from Plato to the Gershwin Brothers has demonstrated, is a relative concept.

You know, as Fred Astaire once warbled, “You like tomata and I like tomahta.”

Truth is something that all good filmmakers try to capture, in whatever way they can. Or if not truth, then at least a sense of authenticity. If what you see onscreen isn’t actual, verifiable truth – a zombie invasion, say – then does what you see make you believe that a such a thing could happen?

Because if not, then why are you looking over your shoulder, wondering if that guy eating popcorn is merely coughing up a stray kernel – or caught in the initial stages of zombie gestation?

Truth, or some semblance of it, is at the heart of “Vice,” Adam McKay’s imaginative, irreverent and not-so-casually caustic look at the life of former vice president Dick Cheney. Taking up stylistically where he left off with his 2015 film “The Big Short,” which won him both a Best Director Oscar nomination and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay, McKay takes us on a trek through Cheney’s life from his humble origins in Wyoming all the way through his eight-year tenure as vice president to George W. Bush.

And that trek is every bit as busy as the succession of events it covers. McKay’s movie begins with the 20-something Cheney, having flunked out of Yale, working as a Casper, Wyoming, lineman – just another hard Western guy hustling by day and drinking by night. Until he gets picked up and tagged with another DUI, bringing the wrath of his then-girlfriend – and later wife, Lynne – down upon him so hard he is jolted into changing his life’s course.

Quicker than you can say Republican Party, Cheney transforms himself into a guy straitlaced – or, if you prefer, amoral – enough to win a Congressional internship, earn the trust of a Congressman named Donald Rumsfeld and – in short cinematic order – become a Congressman himself, a White House chief of staff, Secretary of Defense and, ultimately, Bush’s vice president, following the contentious – and tautly contested – election of 2000.

It was that eight-year tenure as VP for which Cheney will be most remembered, as – with Bush’s consent and support – he reshaped what had been a largely ceremonial office into a position with real power to shape policy and make decisions.

Culling from a variety of sources, McKay captures all this, playing as fast and loose with chronology as he does with sequences that serve to fill in the gaping blank spots of the famously private Cheney’s personal life. McKay uses mostly invented dialogue and, at times, fantasy sequences – such as the one where an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale as Cheney and Amy Adams as the tart-tongued Lynne engage in a Shakespearean soliloquy.

All this amounts to McKay’s version of truth. And as busy and overstuffed as that truth may be, it’s certainly plausible. More plausible, at least, than a zombie invasion.