A lukewarm reaction from critic Mark Kermode and a condemnation from political writer Simon Jenkins are a strange way to start this review of the Dick Cheney biopic Vice, given that I really enjoyed it. Jenkins's is peculiar, believing it reduced the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the work of a few shady men in the U.S. administration. But wasn't it? Weren't the reasons for the invasion of Iraq – Weapons of Mass Destruction – proven false? Didn't Dick Cheney's energy company Halliburton make ridiculous amounts of money from the invasion? More broadly, wasn't the U.S.'s reaction to 9/11 a textbook example of the Shock Doctrine: of exploiting a national disaster to implement extreme (right-wing) policies that might otherwise never be given the light of day? How else could the invasion of Iraq have been justified, and for that matter, the erosion of people's rights regarding surveillance and torture? For Jenkins, the events after 9/11 might appear like so much chaos; more perceptive writers like Naomi Klein have made convincing arguments it was anything but.
Yet all the questions raised in the film do point to its biggest flaw. Vice is an often brilliantly acerbic and surreal view of Dick Cheney's rise from drunken failure to one of the most powerful men in the world. The rogue's gallery of Cheney, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell is engagingly hilarious, with Steve Carell's Rumsfeld funnily obnoxious, and Sam Rockwell's Bush on the nose. But what drives these men beyond their lack of sympathy for the consequences of their actions isn't clear, ideologically. Compare, for example, the other film made by the producers of this film, The Big Short, which explores the events that directly cause the 2008 Global Crash. There, we get an attempt at understanding the cause-and-effect. Vice, however, is much less articulate or focused on why the actions of Dick Cheney and the Bush administration proved so popular with the American public, and indeed, with the likes of British PM, Tony Blair. The presentation of Cheney and Rumsfeld as cynical white men is believable but not enough, given the impact and damage they caused.
Connected to this superficiality is one of the biggest missed opportunities, the marginal representation of Condoleeza Rice, who made perhaps two short utterances in the entire film. Other characters perhaps deserved minor parts – Colin Powell is rightly depicted as a political lightweight, while Paul Wolfowitz always seemed to me greasily two-dimensional even in real life. Not so Condoleeza Rice, arguably the most academically brilliant member of the Bush administration, as well as the most visibly genuine. A deeper exploration of Rice's experience might have added welcome dimensions to this film, balancing the privileged-white-bloke dynamics with alternative insights into why lying to your country to start a war is so laudable an exercise. For similar reasons, the performance by Amy Adams of Dick Cheney's wife Lynne is a highlight of the film – to some degree, the Lady Macbeth to her husband's drunken, loser version of Macbeth. But apart from her valuing of power, we see little of her beliefs. If Lynne Cheney was so forceful a power behind one of the most ideological (and powerful) Vice-Presidents in U.S. history, then what was her connection to this ultimately discredited concept called Neoconservative? Ultimately, Vice is a film less about ideas than about events and some of the shady characters involved. I welcome its endeavour and found it attractively watchable, but for depth and understanding of my generation's equivalent of the Vietnam War, my generation needs this kind of film to be just the tip of the iceberg.