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.

Picking the right running mate.

With the ghastly Rick Santorum out of the race, the way ahead is virtually clear for Mitt Romney to secure the Republican nomination for the US presidency. But who should Romney pick for his all important running mate?

1) Choosing a potential successor: This should, of course, be the only real reason for picking a running mate. Once the election is one the new Vice President will be literally a heartbeat away from serious power. Vice Presidents succeeded to the presidency mid-term (due to illness or resignation) five times in the 20th century alone.

2) To appease a defeated foe: Primary contests can be messy and like Jed Bartlet picking the defeated John Hoynes in The West Wing, giving the loser a place on the ticket can (in theory) help smooth things over. Thus JFK opted for the defeated LBJ in 1960 and the unsuccessful Democratic nominee John Kerry picked runner up John Edwards to run with him in 2004. It only goes so far though. A particularly vicious primary battle wrecks any chance of even feigning unity. Obama thus didn’t pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate in 2008 (although she did become Secretary of State when he won). President Gerald Ford didn’t pick his defeated primary challenger Ronald Reagan when a vacancy on the ticket arose in 1976. Likewise, when Reagan did get the nomination himself four years later he didn’t pick former President Ford as his No.2 as some had expected. Some wounds just won’t heal. For similar reasons, Romney may not pick Santorum to run with him this time. Particularly, as he’s awful.

3) To appeal to women: Outgunned by the charismatic Senator Barack Obama, the flagging Senator John McCain targeted a politically unrepresented group: women, when he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his No.2 in a bid to revive his lacklustre 2008 campaign. It worked…at first. McCain actually led Obama as late as September. But as Governor Palin’s shortcomings became apparent, the McCain ticket was ultimately overwhelmed to the point that the choice derailed the campaign. Choosing the first ever female running mate Geraldine Ferraro similarly didn’t stop Democrat Walter Mondale losing 49 out of 50 states to President Reagan in 1984.

4) Pick someone older and wiser: The forty something Obama went for the more experienced sixty five year old Senator Joe Biden in 2008. Governor George W. Bush picked his daddy’s former Defence Secretary Dick Cheney in 2000, despite the fact he had already had four heart attacks.

5) Provide some youthful vigour: Alternatively, an older candidate may choose someone much younger to balance the ticket. The precedents for this aren’t encouraging though. Popular sixtysomething Republican candidate and war hero, General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was ultimately harmed by his choice of the thirty-nine-year-old Richard Nixon in 1952 who was widely distrusted over his murky role in McCarthyism and a notoriously dirty 1950 California Senate campaign. Likewise, George HW Bush was damaged by his selection of the young but gaffe-prone Dan Quayle in 1988 although like Ike still managed to win the election. John McCain and the younger, inexperienced and politically maladroit Sarah Palin were not so lucky twenty years later.

6) To control them: Some suggest that having been vice president for eight years himself, George HW Bush picked Dan Quayle precisely because he felt Qwuayle was too stupid to manipulate his position to his own advantage. The Watergate-damaged President Richard Nixon is also believed to have opted for the clumsy Gerald Ford as the new VP in 1973 because he thought Ford’s appointment as the next in line made his own impeachment less likely. LBJ had once famously described Ford as being “unable to walk and fart at the same time” without falling over and Nixon reckoned Congress wouldn’t dare make Ford President. The strategy failed: Nixon had to resign in 1974 and Ford became President anyway. He twice fell over in public before leaving office in January 1977.

7) So they can control you: Twelve years after his father picked Dan Quayle, the less experienced George W. Bush requested Dick Cheney produce a list of possible running mates during 2000. Cheney came back with the answer: himself. Under Bush, the more experienced Cheney became the most powerful Vice President in US history.

8) Because mistakes do happen!: Picking the wrong running mate can be fatal. Democrat George McGovern’s heavy 1972 defeat became a certainty when he was forced to drop his first choice of running mate Thomas Eagleton after revelations emerged about his health background. Eagleton was replaced with JFK’s son-in-law (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s future father-in-law)Sargent Shriver, but the damage had already been done. Sarah Palin may also have helped defeat the McCain campaign last time. Even when a candidate goes onto win, a Veep who is distrusted (Eisenhower’s Number Two “Tricky Dicky” Nixon or Nixon’s own Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned over tax evasion charges in 1973) or gaffe prone (Dan Quayle, Joe Biden) can still be a source of embarrassment.

The precedents are clear: if Mitt Romney wants to win, he should choose carefully.