Vice (2018) dir. Adam McKay

I think most folks like to believe that elected politicians are holed in Washington D.C., trading barbs and spirited debate on policy and democracy. Like a really boring sports match, or a round of debate. But to hear actual congresspeople tell the tale, they’re less of rivals and more like co-workers who are all very powerful and at least mildly egomaniacal. The political machinations that run the United States–though, not necessarily exclusively–usually come down to compromise and leverage, as much as we’d like to believe in an image akin to the Bartlet administration of The West Wing. Goodness and common sense doesn’t win out. A lot of people make whatever choices they do just for a legacy of some kind, even if they have no interest in the party line.

Or, at very least, this is what Adam McKay would have us believe in Vice, a rather pointed portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). McKay, best known for his silly, but deeply funny and subversive comedies about bumbling, arrogant manchildren, has turned in a film that is very unsilly, and not particularly funny. His Dick Cheney is not a loud, dimwitted joke machine like Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby; instead, his Cheney is a calculated force of sheer will. Even next to his previous effort The Big Short–which, in painstaking detail, chronicles the events leading up to the housing market crash–Vice is a pitch dark, no-frills, Jenga-less picture.

To call Vice “unsubtle” is somewhat counterproductive, as this is the sort of quality that is apparent right away, with the film never letting up. Through a sardonic narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons), and visual cues edited together with the fervor of Koyaanisqatsi, McKay is unyielding in getting his point across, laying out the life and times of a man whose legacy is among the most costly and controversial in American history. Perhaps the most striking choice is to have Dick Cheney loom as large as possible. Christian Bale, in another round of “look how far I can push my body,” is tall and broad, looming over everyone around him. In his early years, Dick is more or less the conduit for his ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams) to escape their middle-of-nowhere lives in Wyoming. Though initially a flunky and a drunk, Dick whips into shape, before becoming a congressional intern for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), beginning his climb up the political ladder.

From the start of his career, Dick knows who to hitch his wagon to. Rumsfeld is a slick fast-talker who knows how to work the system. Dick isn’t a Republican wanting to forward a conservative agenda, because he has no strong ideology. If Rumsfeld were a Democrat, Dick might’ve served under Al Gore, if Gore were valuable to Dick’s ascent. But as a young upstart a part of the GOP, within seven years, Dick Cheney is Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (a near-wordless Bill Camp). Cheney’s plans have a wrench thrown to the works when Ford loses re-election to Jimmy Carter, Dick redoubles his efforts when he bids for the sole U.S. Representative seat of his home state of Wyoming. And he may have dug himself into a hole further, as Dick proves to be a rather uncharismatic candidate, had he not suffered a heart attack that forces Lynne to stump for him. But Lynne nails her part in getting Dick elected, and her animated presence as she tours on behalf of her husband may be the deciding in what sets Dick onto a five-term career in the House, as well as a term spent as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush.

Dick hits yet another obstacle when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents. Dick and Lynne are not necessarily upset that Mary is gay; this is another point on which the Cheneys have no real convictions, but rather, the rock and hard place of family and the GOP party line her sexuality puts the two of them between. But the two of them pick their daughter. Even when Dick has an outside shot at the presidency, they see Mary as the one compromise they can’t make. So, Dick settles for a CEO job for Halliburton. And all may have been well that would have ended well–the film even starts to roll credits, in a pretty okay gag. Dick would’ve learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of ambition, but finding his limits and humanity. And, again, settling for CEO of an oil company that makes him filthy rich. But then at last there comes a ring.

When George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), is introduced, he, like a young Dick Cheney, is drunkenly stumbling around a crowded place. He is not a serious person. Jeb is the one cut out to sustain the Bush legacy. But against all reason, Bush Jr. snags himself a gubernatorial seat in Texas, as well as the Republican candidacy for the 2000 presidential election. Rockwell’s Bush is a cipher so blank that Dick, upon meeting with Bush Jr. about running with him, can’t see what Bush Jr. wants, realizing that Bush Jr. doesn’t really want anything. At first, Dick and Lynne have no interest in the vice presidency. The VP is leader of the U.S. Senate, yes, but is ultimately a glorified tie-breaker, as well as a back-up plan should something happen to the president. But after a Richard III exchange between Dick and Lynne–in case the Macbeth undertones weren’t obvious enough–they realize they might be able to mold a do-nothing position into something more powerful than the presidency.

Because Bush Jr. has no idea what he is doing, Dick has his prospective POTUS cede a startling amount of responsibility his way. McKay glosses over the election, as well as the popular notion that the election was stolen from the Democrats. Bush Jr. becomes president, and Dick Cheney his vice president. As vice president, Dick wields a fair amount of power, but can’t find an in for his old company Halliburton. Specifically, Dick wants to tap the oil in Iraq, but can’t crack any reason to just take the stuff. And maybe Dick would’ve let this go, just like he may have left his life in politics behind, had the right opportunity not come along. But then, a good enough opportunity presents itself, in the form of the September 11th attacks.

Much of the first half of the film is interwoven with the early tenure of Dick Cheney’s time as VP, particularly his leadership during 9/11. But once the film catches up, we see a kaleidoscopic march towards a veritable apocalypse. As Osama Bin Laden takes credit for 9/11, Dick Cheney asks his intelligence sources to send him any and all leads, no matter how tenuous. With the thinnest of conjecture, Dick stokes enough concern to launch the Invasion of Iraq without congressional approval, in addition to “enhanced interrogation.” Through his hapless meddling, Dick even makes way for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to start ISIS. The last leg of the film is less a story, and more an extended montage of desolation that Dick Cheney is ostensibly responsible for.

As much as McKay attempts some semblance of fairness to Dick Cheney, he digs his heels into the dirt pretty early on. And to be sure, Bale’s rendering of Dick Cheney is uncanny, and would be no more than a solid impression if Bale didn’t imbue Dick with some sense of an internal life. Adams’s performance as Lynne is perhaps not as developed, but Adams never lets anyone forget that Lynne could have been somebody on her own, even if she enjoys the influence she and her husband share. Rockwell’s Bush is fun, but surprisingly absent, while Carell’s Rumsfeld is perhaps a smidge too weaselly–though, his transformation from mentor to tag-along is a little poignant. Not to mention Plemons’s mysterious but omniscient presence is a welcome addition. McKay’s work with actors has always been his strongest suit as a director, and that is no different here.

And to be sure, Adam McKay makes novel choices, particularly in the structure. Somewhat curiously, McKay borrows quite a bit from Oliver Stone’s W.–by way of The Godfather Pt. II–where much of the film is interwoven with non-literal moments of their respective subjects doing something they love as a metaphor for their legacy–in W., we see Josh Brolin’s George W. Bush hanging around a baseball stadium, where as in Vice, Dick is fishing, presumably for some kind of power… fish. Or something. And as mentioned before, McKay is very expressive even in his casting. He’s not going for anything like Lang or Marnau, but he wants the fictional elements to be stressed, and McKay is thorough in every shot about illustrating the dynamics on-screen. And that exacting nature does make Vice look and feel like little else.

But is Vice well-made? The picture certainly has a lot happening, and McKay certainly worked editor Hank Corwin to the bone. But does any of what he’s doing work? Does loads of archived war footage, the demolition of the fourth wall at every turn, or the blunt force of the film’s subject turned against that individual make for an effective story? Well, not exactly. Though labeled a comedy, Vice is among the most humorless films of 2018. And though Adam McKay is known for his comedies, he doesn’t necessarily have to be funny. But because Vice is so polemical, and because McKay is throwing reminders of what an indecent human Dick Cheney is, his furious enthusiasm becomes exhausting. And while McKay’s level of directness is not itself necessarily a bad thing in a film, his film mostly comes off as the ravings of an overly reactive Reddit commenter.

In the end, Vice grapples with the dilemma of any righteous or overtly political film: Who is this movie for? Which is another way of asking why Vice matters. Because, for all of McKay’s rumination on power and compromise, as badly as he wants us to know every horrible thing Dick Cheney has done, and given how prescient Vice tries to be, the film probably won’t convert anyone. The people who will watch Vice already have similar disdain for Dick Cheney. And, as we’ve learned in the last few years, people who believe in someone like Cheney probably won’t be interested in such a ruthless condemnation, which Vice has kept no secret of being. Maybe some centrists, but otherwise, where’s the warrant? Sure, Vice is often entertaining, when McKay isn’t doing a Michael Moore impression. As a piece of filmmaking, the Vice is often impressive, though, at times, overblown. But in terms of the value of Vice, the film is clear and maybe even right about Dick Cheney and the dire straits he laid the groundwork for in the current landscape of U.S. politics, but at the end of the day, McKay fails to answer the most important question: So what?

Rating – 5.5/10


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