Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP)

Movie reviews: 'Vice' is a damning and timely portrait of the corruption of power

Published Dec. 28, 2018 3:24 p.m. ET

Film critic and Pop Life host Richard Crouse reviews "Vice," "If Beale Street Could Talk," and "On the Basis of Sex."

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in 'Vice'

VICE: 4 STARS 

Recently a clever twitteratti dubbed Adam McKay, director of "The Big Short," the "funny Oliver Stone," in reference to his ability to make movies that hit hard with humour.

His new film, the double entendre-ly titled "Vice," is the twisted tale of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence under George H.W. Bush and, most famously, Vice President to George W. Bush, from college drop out to Washington insider. "Big shot DC Dick," his father-in-law calls him. 

The story begins on September 11, 2001 in the White House situation room. George Bush is on Air Force One and Cheney is the man in charge. How did this happen to a man who got kicked out of Yale for drinking too much? 

"The following is a true story," the title credits read. "Well, at least as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney was one of the most secretive leaders in history. We did our 'bleeping' the best."

McKay, a self-styled historian of troubled times, works backwards to unveil Cheney's rise. Using voiceover and his unique informational interstitials the director pieces together Cheney’s career from so-so student and OK athlete to finding his calling as a "humble servant to power." Hired by Donald Rumsfeld (Steven Carell) as a congressional intern the young Cheney quickly shows an aptitude for navigating the halls of power.

"What do we believe?" he earnestly asks Rumsfeld.

Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in a scene from 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in 'Vice'
Tyler Perry as Colin Powell in a scene from 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Tyler Perry as Colin Powell in 'Vice'
Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in 'Vice'

Later, on the eve of Nixon’s resignation, having tasted power, he tells Rumsfeld, "the plan is to take over the place." Under Gerald Ford he became the youngest ever White House Chief of Staff and then a long serving congressman for the state of Wyoming. 

It’s while Cheney is serving in the House of Representatives that McKay begins to shape the portrait of the man as one of the architects of the current political situation. He emerges as a fan of deregulation and an expert in finding elasticity in the rules. 

With Roger Ailes he strikes down the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC policy that required news outlets to present both sides of the story. This move, as much as anything else, helped give rise to opinion based news outlets, ie: FOX News, and the spread of right wing ideology. 

Cheney weathers the Clinton years as CEO of the multinational corporation Halliburton, re-entering political life at the request of George Bush Junior. "Vice President is a nothing job," says wife Lynne (Amy Adams) scolds. "You sit around and wait for the president to die." Nevertheless Cheney accepts the offer and works to turn the position into a power base. His systematic restructuring of the job leaves his mentor Rumsfeld amazed. "Are you even more ruthless when you used to be?" 

"Vice" heats up in its retelling of the justification of the war in Iraq. Cheney recognized the need for Americans to have an easily identifiable villain. By and large, the film suggests, the public didn’t understand who or what al Qaeda was. "Is that a country?" So Iraq, the place with the "best targets," was chosen in what might be flippantly described as a focus group war.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in 'Vice'

At its heart "Vice" is a damning and timely portrait of the corruption of power. McKay’s talent is his ability to take complicated situations and ideas and make them eye-level without dumbing them down. "The Big Short" explained the financial crisis of 2007–2008. "Vice" uses clever editing and set pieces to contextualize the timeline of Cheney‘s time in the public eye. 

To explain how Cheney and his cronies embraced policies like enhanced interrogation McKay stages a restaurant scene. Alfred Molina plays a waiter reading off a list of specials. "We have a very fresh War Act interpretation," he says with a flourish. "That sounds delicious," Rumsfeld purrs. It’s absurd but these are strange times. These set pieces aren’t necessarily meant to amuse but rather display the heightened nature of the situation.

Cheney bet heavily on the notion that, "the last thing people want is complicated analysis of government." McKay does an end run around that ideology, finding ways to effectively explain how we embraced a war on a country with no WMDs or allowing the monitoring of emails and phones without consent. The genius is, it never feels like a civics class. 

Bale, almost completely unrecognizable as the heavy-set Cheney, heads the sprawling cast. His uncanny take on the character is fuelled by a low key performance. He understands that Cheney knew the power of a carefully placed whisper out punches a tantrum every time. It is precise work that will undoubtedly land him an Oscar nomination.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams in 'Vice.' (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in 'Vice'

Perhaps "Vice's" most telling comment on Cheney comes in its final moments. (MILD SPOILER ALERT) "You want to be loved?" he says, "go be a movie star." He feels the public’s judgement and recriminations but doesn’t care. "I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done."

Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne and Regina King in a scene from 'If Beale Street Could Talk.' (Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures via AP) A scene from 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: 4 STARS

Based on a well-loved James Baldwin novel, "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a story of love in the face of injustice. Director Barry Jenkins, in his follow-up to the Oscar winning "Moonlight," has crafted a stately film that takes us inside the relationship at the heart of the story and the heartlessness that threatens to rip it apart.  

KiKi Layne, left, and Colman Domingo in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.' (Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures via AP) A scene from 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

Childhood friends "Tish" Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James) kept their relationship platonic until it blossomed into love when she was 19 and he was 22. With a lifetime of familiarity behind them, their relationship progresses quickly. They move into together and wait for the birth of their first child when tragedy strikes. Framed for sexual assault by racist cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) Fonny is thrown in jail.

"I hope nobody ever has to look at somebody they love through class," Tish says. The families rally to raise money for his defence but circumstance conspires to keep him incarcerated. 

Stephan James, left, and Brian Tyree Henry in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.' (Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures via AP) A scene from 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is a love story framed against a backdrop of disenfranchisement and turmoil. It is about a woman’s love for her fiancé, a mother and father‘s for their daughter, the power of love to be the fuel of survival. As the faces of this love, Jenkins displays an impeccable eye for casting. Through their body language and easy chemistry Layne and James hand in performances ripe with empathy, power and, here’s that word again, love. 

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in a scene from 'If Beale Street Could Talk.' (Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures via AP) Stephan James and KiKi Layne in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

There is a delicacy to the filmmaking. Jenkins takes his time, slowly building the story of heartbreak tinged with hope. It’s a period piece but placed alongside the spate of newspaper stories of young African-American men by police it feels as timely as today’s headlines.

Read another take: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' is lyrical and lovely    

At a special screening of 'On The Basis of Sex' in New York, on Dec. 16, 2018. (Evan Agosti / Invision / AP) At a special screening of 'On The Basis of Sex' in New York

ON THE BASIS OF SEX: 3 STARS

In 1956 when Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School she was one of just nine women in her class. A new film, "On the Basis of Sex" starring Felicity Jones as the second female justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, details her formative years from law school through to her ground breaking cases in the area of women's rights. 

We first see Ginsburg in a bright blue overcoat, sensible pumps and stockings with a perfectly straight line up the calf walking to class on her first day. She stands out in the mostly button down male pupils walking in Harvard’s hallowed halls. In class the keen student is met with stares of disbelief and asked to consider what it means to be a "Harvard man." Worse, her dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), bluntly asks, "Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man?" 

Cut to 1959. Her tax lawyer husband Marty (Armie Hammer) and daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) are living in New York. Despite graduating top of her class Ginsburg can’t find a job in the biggest city in the world’s most litigious country simply because she is a woman. "We’re a tight knit firm," one prospective employer tells her. "Almost like family. The wives would get jealous."

Shut out of practicing law she accepts a position as a professor at Columbia Law School. The story jumps ahead a decade to 1970. Her class in women’s rights is ninety percent female but attitudes haven’t changed much since she graduated. "Some colleagues say I should be teaching the rights of gnomes and fairies," she says.

The brilliant law professor feels stymied because while she is teaching the next group of lawyers to change the world she would rather be changing it herself.

When her husband presents her with the case of Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), a man denied a caregiver tax deduction because of his gender, she sees a way to make change. She leaps at the chance to take on a sex discrimination case that could have far reaching implications not only for Moritz but for women as well.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2018. (Caron Creighton / AP) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Felicity Jones, who stars as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 'On the Basis of Sex,' at the film's L.A. premiere, on Nov. 8, 2018. (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP) Felicity Jones at the L.A. premiere of 'On the Basis of Sex'

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an exceptional person. So exceptional in fact that her life has been documented several times on film, including the recent documentary "RBG." That movie presents her as a multifaceted person. An opera loving law prodigy with a wicked sense of humour and a sense of justice that has influenced every aspect of her life. Gloria Steinem calls her "the closest thing to a superhero I know."   

"On the Basis of Sex," written by Ginsburg's late husband's nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, takes this pioneering woman’s spirit and shapes it around a formulaic narrative. It’s efficient, playing like a greatest hits collection of the heads she butted and the doors she kicked in. Gone is the quirky, layered personality displayed in "RBG," replaced with Jones’s earnest portrayal. If, as Steinem says, she is a superhero, "RBG" portrays her as Wonder Woman. In "On the Basis of Sex" she’s more like Elektra, still remarkable but not quite as interesting.  

"On the Basis of Sex" is a feel good history lesson, a movie that provides a look at Ginsburg’s determination, intelligence and humanity but one that goes too heavy on the hagiography.

Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.