Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

DVD review: American Sniper

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Director: Clint Eastwood.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Cole Konis, Ben Reed

American Sniper is based on the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq and became the most prolific sniper in US history.

Brought up in a strict God-fearing, gun-toting Texan family environment, Kyle (played as an adult by Bradley Cooper) has nevertheless rather gone off the rails by the time we meet him in adulthood, wasting his time on booze, bucking broncos and broads. The solution? He decides to replace his Stetson with a helmet.  Intensely patriotic, Kyle enrols as a Navy SEAL and is soon going through the rigours of an intense beefing up programme, catching the eye of future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) along the way. Soon Kyle is in Iraq, engaged in numerous hugely dangerous combat missions, often involving shooting potential terrorists from great distances.

Kyle’s efforts soon earned him the nickname “Legend” amongst his colleagues, but to its credit, Clint Eastwood’s film does not attempt to glamorise Kyle’s unpleasant, hazardous and ethically dubious work. The real difficulties of family life for a warrior are also laid bare with Sienna Miller excellent as the long suffering wife and mother back home. Cooper is also impressive as Kyle, an inarticulate but apparently moral man who often seemed more at ease in terrifying combat situations than he did with his family on leave back home.

This is a well made, memorable film which continues Eastwood’s latter career as a great director. It would be an incurious soul who did not have a few doubts about the film’s political position though. For example, Kyle is seen first going into Iraq only two scenes after he and his wife witness the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks on TV. The casual viewer would be forgiven for thinking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was actually responsible for the attacks, hence making the US intervention in Iraq logical and necessary. This myth is, of course, believed by many to this day: perhaps Kyle believed it sincerely himself. But the reality is Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th whatsoever. It is difficult to feel Kyle’s actions, however brave they may be, are wholly necessary when the reasons for the US being in Iraq were so dubious in the first place.

Similarly, few non-American viewers could watch this without being struck by the crazy attitude towards guns. Kyle himself is shown being encouraged to use a gun from childhood, he does the same with his own kids. At another point, in what is supposed to be a playful scene, Kyle even jokingly points a (presumably unloaded) gun at his wife, ordering her to “drop her drawers”. His wife is as amused by this as he is; it isn’t even a cautionary scene. But without wishing to spoil anything, the proliferation of guns in US life leads directly to one personal tragedy during the course of the film. This in fact presented as more as down to pure bad luck: the fact that it would never have occurred if the populace were not so heavily armed in the first place, is totally glossed over.

Yet despite the politics, American Sniper is a genuinely good film, a worthy addition to Clint Eastwood’s directorial portfolio and featuring at least two first class performances from Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

DVD extras: One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper (30 minute documentary)

Running time: 132 minutes.

Rating: 15.

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