Life Through the Lens: When your heart is on the table

“When you have power, people will always try to take it from you. Always.”

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“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” my all-time favorite book, begins with a simple meeting: Basil, the artist, meets Dorian, the muse. In high-society London life, Dorian is a welcomed disruption: he is young, handsome, and impossibly charming. Basil is enthralled, finding in Dorian all that he wishes he could be in sheer perfection.

Next, Dorian meets Lord Henry, a renowned wit who enjoys stirring the proverbial pot. Lord Henry can’t help himself but upset this little scene; he angers all involved by harping on the fleeting and temporary nature of beauty and youth. “Sorry, Dorian — one day ya fit, then, Bob’s your uncle, next day ya bloddy Brown Bread” (said in my finest cockney dialect).

Dorian is affected by this prophecy and begins to hate his recent portrait by Basil. Every lovely detail is now a reminder of his wrinkle-filled fate! In a moment of fury and fear, Dorian promises his soul if the painting could shoulder the burden of age and erosion while he remains forever young. He is gifted the portrait but can barely stand to look at it.

After Dorian shallowly loves a girl and discards her after use, he notices a subtle change in the portrait: a smirk now rests on the painted mouth. From then on, all of Dorian’s wear-and-tear, his sickness and perversion, reside in the painting while Dorian stays young and untainted. It is freeing yet condemning, so Dorian stores the painting in the attic — out of sight but rarely out of mind. Time goes by but the painting remains, absorbing atrocities and showing sins. What if someone sees it? What if your heart was on display? What if your intentions were laid bare for all to see? Sobering stuff, I know.

The movie “Vice” tells the story of Vice President Dick Cheney…well…what we know (or can, in good conscience, deduce) about one of America’s most secretive and quiet leaders, that is.

Dick’s story begins with promise. Promise and booze, to be more specific. Dick (Christian Bale) received a gifted a Yale education, but drank his way out the door. He stumbled his way to a manual labor job, but drank his way into jail. His wife and two daughters deserved more than a deadbeat dad. After a frank and harsh exchange with his wife (Amy Adams), Dick is convicted to change. To sober up and step up.

Dick begins an internship at the White House, working for the economic adviser to the president, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). The two immediately hit it off; Donald is an outspoken, unapologetic up-and-comer, and Dick is contented to quietly learn from a master. As the Nixon Administration comes to an abrupt end, both find favor with President Ford. Plans are laid and positions are fixed… until Ford loses his election. Now Cheney is out of a job.

Next, Cheney runs and wins a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Wyoming (although experiencing his first heart attack in the process). He is then given the Secretary of Defense position under President Bush. Cheney has achieved great political status and power, but when his daughter comes out as gay, he decides the negative attention and scrutiny on his daughter is enough of a reason to step out of public office. He enters the private sector as CEO of Halliburton (a multinational oil field service company).

Although private life is rewarding, an offer to run as George W. Bush’s vice president is just too enticing. The knee-jerk reaction from Cheney is “not a chance”… but Bush (Sam Rockwell) is just so green and gullible that Cheney’s desire for power trumps his current contentment. In Bush, Cheney can grasp true power, but continue to shield his family. After all, who really cares about a vice president? The more Cheney marinates on the possibilities, the more being Bush’s vice president sounds like a dream job. Enter the subversive and secretive second in command.

The film ends with Cheney’s fifth heart attack and his subsequent heart-transplant. The film does a curious thing: it shows the heart. The old heart. The rotten heart. The heart that doesn’t work anymore. For (what felt like) 20 seconds, we are left to stare at this defect — this pathetic pile of muscles. In a sense, we are forced to view the unfiltered, unprotected core of Dick Cheney. No more shadows, no more secrets — just straight HEART. What we see is not too flattering.

If your heart was placed on the table for all to see, what would we see? Would it be healthy and whole? Would it be foul and useless? Would your actions be shown pure? Would your sins be overwhelming? If your secret life were visible, if your Dorian Gray self-portrait was displayed, what would the reaction be?

You must be careful what you keep inside, what you hide, what you shelter…it will find its way out eventually. Sooner or later, we all lay bare and our true portraits are exposed.

“Vice” won me over in its initial seconds. Director Adam McKay has found his niche. As he did with “The Big Short,” he has the uncanny ability to make the complicated seem chewable. No matter the depth and intricacy, McKay can make it look so easy. With charm, with humor, with innovation, with undeniable grace, “Vice” is as accessible as it is weighty. From fake credits to Shakespearean monologues, I admire McKay’s daring and creativity; he is a voice unlike any other.

Christian Bale is scary-good. No matter what I say about his performance, it is something you have to see to believe. Bale disappeared and Dick Cheney materialized. Every mannerism, every eccentricity… it is eerie. If this isn’t best actor, I will be stunned.

The rest of the cast shines, as well. Carell is insightful and funny. Adams is solid. Rockwell is hilarious. Jesse Plemons is great as the narrator. Each actor plays beautifully off the others, creating an ensemble to be reckoned with.

Overall, this is a “can’t miss” movie. It is filmmaking at its highest level. All pieces and all performances fit together with effortless precision. From the relentless originality to the persistent authenticity, “Vice” is a work of art.

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REPORT CARD: “Vice”

Grade: A+

Comment: A character study with determination and wit

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