Entertains While It Informs;
Bale Transforms Himself.
You have to give Adam McKay credit for what he was able to accomplish in going from straight comedic fare with Anchorman and Talledega Nights to something as challenging (and, ultimately, rewarding) as The Big Short. He went from being the guy giving Will Ferrell a platform to perform his schtick on the big screen to the guy who helped younger generations understand the reasoning behind the housing crisis and financial collapse, giving it a sense of scope that was digestible while making it very palatable for mainstream audiences. It was a formula that worked, so here we are a few year’s later and he has applied the same approach to one of US history’s most elusive leaders, Dick Cheney. As with his previous film, McKay has delivered something that balances entertainment with information, and tries to help us understand the scale of how one man changed the course of history, and did so from right under our noses. This time around, that approach proves to be both a strength and a weakness, giving audiences something that is a riot to watch, but at times feels like it’s missing its mark and holding itself back from greater potential. It can be far funnier than it has any right to be, at times feeling like it shouldn’t be so, considering the real implications involved.
Christian Bale anchors the film amazingly well, transforming himself in absolutely every regard. It may sound cliche but in this case it is absolutely true: he isn’t playing Dick Cheney, he is Dick Cheney. Even moreso than Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody earlier this year, he embodies Cheney across the board and almost makes you forget you’re watching a movie, until McKay’s ultra-meta narrative devices bring you back to reality. Bale deserves an Oscar nomination for this, as he continues to prove his dedication to nailing a role and does so with flying colors here, to the extent that it would have been hard to figure out who he was if you didn’t already know going into the film. Steve Carell also shines as Donald Rumsfeld, and while I have no idea if the real “Rummy” is as much fun as the script and Carell make him out to be, he manages to bring some endearing qualities to a role that would seem devoid of them from an outside perspective. Not to be left from the conversation, Amy Adams turns in a great performance as Lynne Cheney, the woman who pushed Dick to straighten out his life and make himself into a man and has some of the only true character development. She is perhaps capable of more than she lets on, something Dick may have adopted from her and used to his own immense gain, and Adams portrays that quality with grace and quiet ferocity. Sam Rockwell, fresh off his Oscar win last year, is a riot as George W Bush, making the most out of a limited amount of screen time, which speaks volumes about the relationship between the man who was President and the man who held the “meaningless job.” Rockwell is in on the joke, making something that should probably scare us to death laugh pretty hard while shaking our heads. Much of the cast are inherently unlikable people, but the actors overcome that nature and get you invested in their story arcs.
The movie is definitely not without its slant, but it doesn’t seek to be a “fair and balanced” look at such a powerful figure. It is part grounded biography, part wild political satire. Part hard, dramatic fact, part comedic slideshow. It will most certainly be divisive, because that’s the nature of politics itself. When The Big Short skewed the housing market crisis, that was something almost everyone could get behind. But if you’re a hardcore conservative, you may hate the way Cheney’s ascent to power is portrayed, regardless of how true it may (or may not) be. There is a mid-credits scene that acknowledges the film’s existence and slant, but reinforces the idea that, these days, Americans would rather be entertained than lectured to, and rather fight than debate and converse. It is a powerful (and funny) scene, but one that will probably turn off as many viewers as it engages, much like the preceding 130 minutes.
While the film scatters itself around and takes aim at multiple moving targets, it doesn’t always hit them, but the drive is admirable. It seems to be a case of reaching beyond its means, but it clearly seeks to be commercially viable rather than a straightforward biopic. Then again, when dealing with someone so famously secretive, how exactly would one craft a more serious image that would push people to watch? With a film like this, I think you need to temper your expectations of the overall portrayal, because if you expect a completely balanced look at the man, you’re in the wrong movie. That’s not to say he is totally without humanization, as that would be an unfair statement. His relationship to his family is presented strongly, and interactions with Lynne and his daughters show the tender nature that he kept out of his political dealings. An into-the-camera monologue at the film’s conclusion balances out the image the rest of the film presents that all he ever wanted was power for his own sake, but it will feel too late for some viewers and too meta for others (though, if you’ve dealt with the previous two hours of narrative trickery, that device will come as no surprise).
Ultimately, I had a great time watching this movie, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that, given its true nature, I shouldn’t have been smiling so hard. With such a scope (the story begins in the early 60s and carries through to present day), it shouldn’t lack character development, but does. Parts of it work exceptionally well, while others occasionally ring hollow. The narrative structure worked very well for me, as the film opens with a youthful, drunken exploit and smash-cuts to the chaos and confusion of 9/11, hooking us immediately and giving us the sense of a grand journey from that point to this one. Part of my issue is things that were glossed over, like how he came to be the CEO of Halliburton and what that meant to the overall story. Maybe they filmed more on that front and it was cut for time, but some of those types of issues became jarring. I admire McKay (and Bale, but I’ve been beating that drum for well over a decade), but I hope he is able to find a cinematic voice that doesn’t rely on gimmicks every time out. The argument being made is that one man paved the way for the political climate we know now, with cable TV opinionated news channels, focus-group-inspired, Orwellian doublespeak and terrifying levels of executive power, but its voice can occasionally feel lost among the noise. Such ruthless dedication to planning and strategy is admirable, considering how much the filmmakers clearly dislike their subject.