Adam McKay used to be a head writer for Saturday Night Live. After that, he became known for directing a lot of films with Will Ferrell, including Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Step Brothers (2008). McKay is also Ferrell’s producing partner in his company Gary Sanchez Productions, having worked on tons of projects. Those 2004 and 2008 films were highly successful and much beloved, but McKay wasn’t really taken seriously as a director until he did The Big Short (2015), which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It also won McKay his first Oscar for Best Writing. McKay also writes and directs this film. It’s his follow-up to The Big Short and because he now probably feels too big for his britches, he decided to write this true story the same way or construct it using the same techniques as that 2015 film.
One of the most outstanding techniques in The Big Short is the breaking of the fourth wall. McKay had actors, mostly playing themselves, talking directly to the camera in order to explain things that were too complicated. This technique was clever and funny because it had people, some celebrities as themselves, in weird places like Margot Robbie in a bathtub, explaining complex things in silly or sexy ways. This movie uses that same technique but in a less clever and funny fashion. First of all, it’s not multiple celebrities. It’s instead one person who is mostly just narrating things that didn’t need to be narrated. That one person isn’t playing himself. He’s playing a character but one whose identity isn’t revealed until the end. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if doing so doesn’t trivialize the life of the real-life person on whom the narrator is based.
The sense of humor here is similar to the sense of humor in The Big Short. It’s somewhere below the sense of humor of Armando Iannucci of In the Loop and HBO’s Veep. There doesn’t feel like there’s as much cursing and swearing here. It’s also not as quick-witted or as reliant on the ensemble either. The goal here isn’t to expose the bull of a situation that indicted a whole bunch of people. The goal here is simply to show how horrible one person is or how horrible this one person becomes. It’s not like Oliver Stone doing Nixon (1995) or W. (2008). McKay is not trying to provide some kind of balanced look or insight into this person. This movie is mostly just to spoof or mock the real-life person at the center.
This film probably won’t be remembered or referenced as other political comedies are, such as Wag the Dog (1997) or Primary Colors (1998). It certainly won’t go in the same annals as Dr. Strangelove (1964). The reason it won’t is because at the end of the day it’s just a lame biopic. It follows 50 years of this person’s life and doesn’t really teach us that much more about him than many haven’t already guessed. It’s just an episodic romp through his days. McKay does have a theory that drives or runs through the whole thing. We see the steps of this person’s rise to power. The how is laid out in a mostly superficial manner, but the why is lost most often. There is no depth or delving into who this person really is. Arguably, McKay admits that doing so for this particular person is extremely difficult and proves it with redacted or lost material as to why that is the case.
Christian Bale was the star of The Big Short. He teams up with McKay again to play Dick Cheney, the man who went on to become the 46th Vice President of the United States, elected in 2000 on the same ticket as President George W. Bush. We start in 1963 when Cheney was in his early 20’s and the movie tracks his life until 2013 when he’s in his 70’s. Steve Carell who also starred in The Big Short returns too as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under President Bush at the same time. In fact, Cheney brought in Rumsfeld for that administration, but that’s not how their relationship began.
Dick begins as an intern for Donald in the late 60’s when Donald had an office in the Nixon administration. Dick is a bit of a blank slate. He’s a quiet man, which the film warns is the kind of man to beware. Dick doesn’t even necessarily have any political leanings. He seems to become a Republican only because that’s what the politics are of the first president for whom he serves. He asks Donald in one scene what they believe and Donald laughs, giving no answer, which seems to be McKay’s thesis for this film. McKay thinks the men at the center only care about amassing power and maintaining it with no real ideology to speak of.
Amy Adams (American Hustle and The Fighter) co-stars as Lynne Cheney, the wife to Dick and the mother to his children. She’s established early as basically the Lady Macbeth to Dick’s somewhat Shakespearean figure. She eventually reveals herself to be shrewd and possibly even more ruthless than her husband when it comes to politics. However, if anyone demonstrates any kind of ideology, it’s her. She’s a right-wing proponent. She’s anti-liberal, anti-progressive and even anti-environment.
It’s no more glaring the ideological differences between Lynne and Dick when their daughter, Mary, played by Alison Pill (American Horror Story and The Newsroom), comes out as gay. Dick doesn’t care and is generally accepting. Dick immediately hugs Mary. However, Lynne’s reaction isn’t immediately to hug her daughter. Her reaction seems less accepting. The only interesting part of the film are the few scenes that deal with this issue. The issue forces the family to embrace Mary’s sexuality openly in public or deny it in order to go further in their political careers.
The second half of this movie is mostly about Cheney’s role in the War in Iraq in 2003. Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays George W. Bush, but he doesn’t come into the narrative until the end of the second act or the beginning of the third. Whatever unified theory that McKay was trying to argue would seem to focus squarely on the relationship between Dick and George. Yet, that relationship probably gets the least screen time here. There are more scenes between Dick and Donald, but even that isn’t enough. The relationship between Dick and Donald takes a turn in that third act. I’m not sure if the turn is effective because it’s supposed to be a moment of betrayal perhaps or dismissal in the least, but the emotion didn’t land with the audience or certainly not me.
Going back to the narrator technique employed here, there are bits that are rather anachronistic or fourth-wall breaking like when the narrator is heard or appears. One bit is a news anchor portrayed by Naomi Watts that whizzes by too fast to be consequential or even all that memorable. The best bit though is when Dick and Donald go to dinner. Alfred Molina (Love is Strange and Frida) plays a waiter at the restaurant who lists for them the menu items that relate to controversial political items like torture, which the men seem to order, and it’s probably the funniest scene in the movie and only the second time I laughed throughout this whole film. The other time was a faux ending where the credits starts to roll. That cracked me up too.
Rated R for language and some violent images.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 12 mins.