Vice (2018)


Love him or hate him, Bale nailed Dick Cheney.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Annapurna) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemmons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Gurgis, Tyler Perry, Josh Latzer, Jeff Bosley, Camille Harman, Jillian Armenante, Matthew Jacobs, Alexander MacNicoll, Cailee Spaeny. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Dick Cheney is a polarizing figure. The former Vice-President is looked upon by many conservatives as an architect of the modern Republican party; liberals tend to see him as the boogie man. He is a man renowned for playing his cards close to the vest and as a result is something of an enigma.

Cheney is not so much portrayed as inhabited by Christian Bale, an actor noted for throwing himself feet first into his roles (he would win the Golden Globe for this one). He is accompanied, as all great men are, by a great woman, his wife Lynne (Adams, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe). He becomes an aide to then-Senator Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), an association that would last through several administrations.

McKay presents this almost as a comedy; there are indeed some farcical interludes (like a false set of credits that role before Cheney decides to take the Vice-Presidential position) which seems like an odd call, but it works. Cheney is by his own admission not the most charismatic of men and how he rose to such a powerful position is something of a miracle of “right guy, right place and right time.” The humor helps lighten the movie which wouldn’t have worked as well as a straight drama.

I can imagine those readers leaning to the right will find this contemptible and disrespectful. I can’t disagree with the latter; McKay’s politics made it inevitable that this would not be a kindly portrait of the former V.P. Liberals of the more fire-breathing sort will say this doesn’t go far enough in excoriating a man that some believe paved the way for our current chief executive and his philosophy of absolute executive power.

But I’m not here to review the politics of the film, only the film itself. It is well-acted, highly entertaining and certainly worth a look, particularly if you are left-leaning. As I said, those on the right will likely not find this a laughing matter as I’m sure a similarly themed movie about, say, Al Gore, would be to folks like me.

\REASONS TO SEE: Bale and Adams truly inhabit their roles. Irreverently funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Conservatives may not dig this, and everyone may find it a tad dry
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few violent images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bale has the same birthday as Dick Cheney does (January 30).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: W
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lionheart (1988)

Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game

Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."

(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman

 

When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.

Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.

He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.

His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.

Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.

Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).

From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).

Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.

Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.

Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.

Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.

The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.

The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.

Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.

WHY RENT THIS:  A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news.  Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter

GasLand


GasLand

When the country is too polluted to live in, country music will have to change too.

(2010) Documentary (Rooftop) Josh Fox, Dick Cheney, Pete Seeger, Richard Nixon, Aubrey K. McClendon, Pat Fernelli, Ron Carter, Jean Carter, Norma Fiorentino, Debbie May, Mike Markham, Marsha Mendenhall, Dave Neslin, Jesse Ellsworth. Directed by Josh Fox

It all started with an offer. A natural gas company offered filmmaker and activist Josh Fox a hundred grand to lease property in Pennsylvania for the purpose of extracting natural gas using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” in which a liquid is injected into underground rock formations, causing them to crack after which the gas is released. The land is bucolic, a stream winding its way through forested terrain. Fox, understandably, wants to know how this will affect his property.

Therefore he decides to see how hydraulic fracturing has affected other places that it has taken place in and the results are terrifying. Populations of small towns having medical problems. Contaminated water tables (in one particularly gripping sequence, the resident of a place where hydraulic fracturing is taking place lights a match by his water faucet and incredibly, the water goes ablaze.

The people whose lives have been affected so adversely have no recourse, thanks largely in part to the 2005 Energy Policy Act, written by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, which exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Which, when you think about it, is absolutely astounding – there are exceptions to bills that protect our drinking water. Thank you Haliburton.

Fox builds his case persuasively, talking to EPA officials, showing how the process of hydraulic fracturing works and how adverse effects can take place. This is actually quite an informative documentary in that it explains how the process works in terms even a layman can understand.

He also takes a look at the large picture and shows how environmental regulations have been eroded over the years and how energy and mining corporate interests have skewed them in their favor. It’s a chilling picture at how greed and the prospect of wealth have trumped common sense and responsibility.

Natural gas has been touted as a responsible alternative to fossil fuels and the lobby that represents the companies that are responsible for hydraulic fracturing has pointed out several factual errors in the documentary (although the filmmakers with the help of environmental scientists have refuted most of those claims). However, the process of extracting that alternative may be in the long run more damaging to our environment which is somewhat ironic.

Fox has created a cautionary tale about how companies will use whatever means at their disposal to make the most profits possible. Are there alternatives to fracking? Undoubtedly, although the documentary doesn’t give much time to them. However, the fact remains that there are alternative energy sources that are safer to the environment – they’re just not as profitable to big corporate interests and that means we’re going to get screwed in the long run.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at a very important issue not many people know about. Thoroughly researched and thought out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a balanced presentation won’t see it here.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there, and some fairly disturbing subject matter.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Debra Winger is one of the producers for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49,428 on an unreported production budget; at best the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Midnight in Paris

W.


W

The easy crack would be of Dubya conversing with intellectual equals, but that would be TOO easy.

(Lionsgate) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfus, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffud, Thandie Newton, Jesse Bradford, Toby Jones. Directed by Oliver Stone

When all is said and done, one of the most fascinating political figures of the last fifty years is George W. Bush. Love him or hate him, there is simply no in-between.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone is known for his liberal viewpoint and he’s no stranger to making movies about chief executives (Nixon). He is also known for playing fast and loose with facts in order to get his point across.

He doesn’t do that here. This is a remarkable movie in that sense, what appears to be a sincere attempt to understand a president who has been, in many ways, a complete mystery. It’s not the facts of his life that are in dispute; it’s just that people can’t figure out how this guy became president and then once he became president, why he made the decisions he did.

Josh Brolin is in the title role and he plays the President starting from his frat years at Yale all the way to his last year as President. He gets his mannerisms down pat, just nails them and yet refrains from making his performance a Saturday Night Live caricature. If you ever doubted that Josh Brolin is a fine actor, one glimpse of his performance here will dissuade any notion of that.

The story is not told chronologically for a reason. Stone’s intent is not to tell the story of Bush’s presidency but to examine the man in the office. It looks at his daddy issues, as his father George H.W. Bush (Cromwell) seems to favor his brother Jeb over him, and it’s certainly understandable. George drinks heavily, parties like a fiend and is generally successful at nothing.

His father is skeptical when George runs for Governor of Texas and surprised when he wins. It does serve to change his opinion of his son somewhat, to the point where he asks him to run his campaign (which he loses to Clinton).

His relationship with Laura (Banks) is central to the movie and we can see her influence on him and how much her support helped him grow. There is no doubt that he is a family man and that he has a spiritual side that is strong and sincere.

The actors for the most part capture their roles perfectly. Dreyfus and Wright do wonderful jobs as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, respectively. We don’t get much insight into them as people other than as they relate to Dubyah, but then this is HIS movie.

How accurate is this? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Obviously there’s no way of knowing what went on behind closed doors or what precisely was said by whom. Still, what is said and done is consistent with published accounts of the Bush presidency. I’m sure that this isn’t a 100% accurate biography of George W. Bush (his family has gone on record as saying that it is not), but then is anything? At least it seems somewhat fair-minded.

I have gone on record with my opinions of the Bush presidency on my other blog and there’s no need to rehash it here. In many ways, this movie is apolitical; the argument is that Bush was the poster boy for the Peter Principle. He was ill-prepared for the job; clearly he wasn’t capable. He had advisors that for better or worse essentially set policy. Whatever you stand is politically, you don’t need to love George W. Bush to love this movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Remarkably apolitical despite the filmmakers known political leanings, this is more an attempt to understand Bush rather than to form an opinion about him. Extremely well-cast, the actors all resemble their famous roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like many Oliver Stone films, it runs a bit longer than it probably should have.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language, depictions of drinking and smoking, a bit of sexuality and some disturbing war images; definitely this is for more mature viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Josh Brolin’s dad James played another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in the TV mini-series “The Reagans.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a documentary on the Bush family directed by Sean Stone, Oliver’s son.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Transporter 3