Vice ★★★★

When a Greek guy named Plato endeavored to describe his teacher Socrates' ideal form of government in the Republic he began by exploring just what justice is... and the key to figuring that out lied in determining just what justice is not. Writing in character as his teacher Socrates, Plato reasons that justice is not simply "helping your friends and punishing your enemies" or "the strong make the rules and the weak have to follow". Justice is something much more fair and for the good of all. Justice, Plato writes, is a Virtue, while injustice is a Vice... one that brings with it factions, quarrels, and hatred.

Fast-forward 2400 years to Adam McKay's Vice and it's controversial portrait of controversial politician Dick Cheney. I'm sure when a lot of people consider the title of the film, they rightly think of it as a reference to Cheney's role as vice president of the United States for eight years. Probably others are reminded too of the bad habits that he wrestled with, like the DWI incident at the opening of the film that leads to his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) giving him an ultimatum to become a better man or else watch as she leaves. But Vice as the story of injustice, an examination of how the rule of law can be corrupted with disastrous results by someone who doesn't even seem to fully comprehend the nature of just what it is they're doing... that to me is the core meaning of Vice.

As played by Christian Bale, Dick Cheney's foray into shaping the politics of the U.S. republic starts with him deciding to become a Republican for no other weighty moral reason than he likes what he sees in Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). There's something to Rummy's cynical, knowing, self-serving, and vaguely charismatic brand of politics that appeals to Cheney, and the rookie pol is soon learning (while working closely under his mentor in both the Nixon and Ford White House) how the levers of power can be sneakily dominated by the executive branch… which, considering we're supposed to have three coequal branches of government, isn't how things are supposed to work.

From there, Vice becomes a snowballing personal history of one injustice leading to bigger and more devastating injustices. We see how Cheney's Roger Ailes-inspired desire to counteract the scrutiny of the press by creating a right wing propaganda-fueled media alternative leads to his successful push for for the elimination of the fairness doctrine (the policy that had previously kept media outlets from becoming one-sided political operations) which ultimately leads to the rise of conservative talk radio and Fox News; we see how Cheney's time in the oil industry not only implants a very unethical favoritism towards his former employer but drives his push for preemptive war with oil-rich Iraq. From signing off on torturing prisoners post-9/11 to looking the other way when it comes to homophobic Republican Party policies that alienate his openly gay daughter because it's in his (and his other daughters) political interest to do so, there's what would've been the just thing to do, and then there's what Dick Cheney does in Vice. Is some of it speculation or dramatic embellishment? Sure, stuff like the implication that Cheney personally killed the fairness doctrine is. But too much of his tainted legacy as shown in the film does ring true.

When considering the erosion of the rule of law and human rights abuses that came with his handling of the War on Terror, the catastrophic environmental damage he's encouraged, the tens of thousands needlessly killed during the Invasion of Iraq, a biopic about Dick Cheney could've been supremely depressing. But since this movie is directed by Will Ferrell's former creative partner Adam McKay, it's actually frequently laugh-out-loud funny, especially if dark comedy works for you. Yes the film is self-aware and meta and agenda-driven and acutely conscious of our present-day dilemma here in the US to a degree some might find off-putting, but the movie consistently pitches all this at the viewer with a great sense of humor, and frequently with the sense of absurdity that this story at times truly warrants. Cheney was the real power behind the throne and so greatly shaped what the USA has become, and yet remained something of an unknown to so many that he affected. Could've died five heart attacks ago, and yet he's still here. He refused to retire or give up, and yet the world probably would be better if he had. So amid all the contradictions we get sentimental scenes that play out like subversive comedy, and a protagonist whose discordant trumpet soundtrack accompanies him like the theme song to some self-assumed superhero who doesn't realize he's actually the villain.

I can't say I agree with the common sentiment that while Christian Bale's spot on performances is admirable, this is all just another method-actor-in-old-man-makeup-playing-a-politician rehash of Gary Oldman's turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. While Vice has its faults (the biggest being its factual liberties, especially considering how unnecessary it was since the truth made for a compelling and morally-convincing story enough as it was) being redundant, boring, or unnecessary are not among those shortcomings. It's more entertaining and speaks to the time in which it was released better than Oliver Stone's W. and is also in many ways as effective of an illustration as to how we got where we're currently at in the US as BlacKkKlansman, and both Bale and Adams give unique, tremendous, deeply human performances that help us better understand a key individual in the injustice, the Vice that has increasingly mired our Republic.