November 11, 2019

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Playful approach too good for Cheney

Former U.S. vice-president, Iraq War architect deserved more serious treatment

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2018 (320 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2018 (320 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A few years back, Oliver Stone made a movie about George W. Bush, titled W, that failed to make much of an impression.

In 2018, we can better understand why it fizzled. With his followup to The Big Short, writer-director Adam McKay paints a portrait of Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney, played with skilful mimicry and subtlety by Christian Bale.

Christian Bale provides a skilful impression of the former vice-president, the film itself is perhaps more playful in tone than it should be. (Greig Fraser / Annapurna Pictures)</p>

Christian Bale provides a skilful impression of the former vice-president, the film itself is perhaps more playful in tone than it should be. (Greig Fraser / Annapurna Pictures)

McKay presents us with a George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) who, much like the current occupier of the White House, is merely a useful idiot. Bush is not especially interested in attending to the mechanics of power. Elected as the guy with whom the average voter would want to have a beer, his ambitions were to slap a happy PR face on the executive branch while accommodating the ambitions of smarter conservative ideologues — such as Dick Cheney, who largely assumed the real duties of president. (It’s not for nothing that David Letterman once joked, when Cheney was hospitalized for heart issues, that Bush was "just a heartbeat from the presidency.")

So there it is. Stone got suckered by the presidential status. But in making W, he might as well have filmed a Shakespearean drama called Macduff.

In a pre-credit message, McKay acknowledges the secrecy of the Cheney camp necessitated the use of dramatic speculation. But one can’t help feel there must be accuracy in the scene in which Bush gives Cheney the keys to the kingdom in negotiating his joining the presidential ticket.

The movie shows Cheney shared some qualities with Bush, including a propensity for substance abuse as a young man. We first meet Cheney, freshly kicked out of Yale for drunkenness, getting pulled over by a cop for driving under the influence.

The incident forces Cheney’s future wife Lynne (Amy Adams) to give him an ultimatum to shape up. (Both Cheney and Bush had an appreciation for strong women who helped them achieve goals that should have been beyond their grasps.)

As with The Big Short, which dramatized and explained the mechanics of the economic meltdown of 2008, McKay takes a freewheeling approach. In touching on how the government could defy the constitution in the months following 9/11, McKay employs a waiter (Alfred Molina) to read the delicious offerings from a menu of legal loopholes; for example, redefining torture as "enhanced interrogation."

McKay also uses a mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons) with a trove of inside information on Cheney. Literally.

The film seems almost sympathetic in its treatment of Cheney’s relationship with his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill). We see Cheney tell Bush he won’t be following the Republican party line on the subject of gay marriage during the campaign. (It’s an interesting scene in which the two men seem to acknowledge the whole issue is just red meat for their base.) But when other daughter Liz Cheney subsequently runs for office in Wyoming and is obliged to disavow gay marriage, any sympathy is short-lived. What’s remaining is a guy who single-handedly started an unnecessary war in Iraq at the cost of thousands of lives.

In that regard, the film is perhaps a little more playful in tone than it should be. Often, the satire falls flat.

A true portrait of Cheney should have been modelled after something with the gravitas due its subject. The Godfather, for example.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures)

Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures)

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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