It’s always disappointing when a great dictator shoves their head up their own ass. That’s what Vice often feels like: while Adam McKay is a fine director, and there’s some great moments in editing and especially acting, there is a sense of vanity and overreaching that undercuts his own attempts to tell a good story. Vice takes an interesting story – the life of Dick Cheney, the 46th Vice President of the United States, and one of the most controversial figures in modern American politics – and combines it with ham-fisted and poorly executed satire, creating a hodgepodge that, while admirable, never really justifies its own existence beyond “These actors are really good.”
In 1969, intelligent former ne’er-do-well Richard “Dick” Cheney (Christian Bale) turns his life around by becoming an intern at the White House. Taken under the wing of economic advisor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), and aided by his brilliant strategist wife Lynne (Amy Adams), Cheney begins a forty-year career in politics that forever shaped the nation, and ultimately culminated in a controversial stint as George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) Vice President, where he finagled unprecedented oversight and managed a series of controversial decisions under the Unitary Executive Theory, including Enhanced Interrogation, the invasion of Iraq, and the use of focus groups to drive discourse away from facts and towards his own personal goals.
Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong in the way Adam McKay wants to tell this story, or the way he wants to tell it. All art is presented through a lens, whether its Oliver Stone’s Nixon or Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America. Filmmakers present the facts as they see them, and it’s up to the audience to decide if a) the facts are presented in a truthful, logical manner, and b) if the film entertained them while doing so. So, in short, there’s nothing wrong with the storytelling here. However, there lies one major flaw inside the film’s storytelling, and that’s its angle. McKay doesn’t seem to have an angle to this film beyond “Dick Cheney is very bad,” which is a problem for two reasons. One, all-evil characters are hardly ever, if ever, interesting – without understanding their logic, there’s nothing to make us sympathize or loathe. Hell, even The Death of Stalin (a better film that combined comedy with tragedy) painted the men grappling for power in the U.S.S.R. as three-dimensional, understandable figures, even if it never approved of their methods or actions. However, what makes this angle so strange is the fact that McKay presents it like he’s saying something new or profound. He acts as if he’s the first person to ever say Cheney is bad, which…everyone kind of agrees on? I mean, people may be split on George W. Bush, but at this point, both Democrats and Republicans tend to agree that Cheney was, to some extent, troubling. Hell, current Republican president Donald Trump ran on a campaign of “Cheney and Bush sucked.” So there’s truly nothing new about this perspective. Further issues arise when you start to analyze the way McKay portrays Cheney as a man. The film’s overarching theory is that “Everything that has happened in U.S. politics since 1974 has been because of Dick Cheney.” This is a broad statement to make, and when you break down the film to individual pieces, I’ve gotta be honest…if the entire point of a movie is to prove its thesis, Vice kind of fails. Yes, there are certain moments of crisis and consequence where the film draws an effective straight line from Point A to Point B, like the implication that Cheney’s meddlings in Iraq (presented as less about oil and more about keeping the public happy with the administration through perpetual war) led to an instability in the region and directly to the refugee crisis existing today. And perhaps more than anything else, the film manages to make the case that through a series of poor decisions, overzealous planning, and general underestimation, Dick Cheney unilaterally (albeit inadvertently) allowed ISIS to rise to power due to writing the speech that made Abu al-Zarqawi a star amongst the terrorist community and then burying the report to cover his tracks, effectively giving the group years of free reign in the region. However, montages, speeches, and more also indicate that Cheney is responsible for everything from fake news to the opioid crisis, which in the case of the former seems like an exaggeration and in the case of the latter seems…far-fetched? I don’t know, maybe I’m being naïve, but no evidence in the film (or that I’ve seen otherwise) seems to indicate that Cheney alone is responsible for every bad thing in modern American history (he’s not J. Edgar Hoover, for Christ’s sake). And even if he was responsible, we the viewers would never know it – McKay never paints a clear enough picture or provides any evidence to back these claims up.
Perhaps he would have had more time to explore these notions and implications if he had actually constructed a third act to this film. But alas, the final thirty minutes of this film aren’t even a story. They’re just reenactments and reminders of all the weird and shady sh*t that was going on with Cheney at the time. It’s pretty much a greatest hits, played out over a thirty minute montage – remember when Dick Cheney outed a CIA agent because her husband wrote a negative piece about the Iraq War intelligence? Remember when Dick Cheney hid a bunch of important documents, dossiers, and emails to cover up his own mistakes? Remember when Dick Cheney shot a guy in the face? All of these moments are presented without commentary or insight, simply because “Well, people remember them.” And yes, I absolutely wanted to see the shooting accident, and it would have been lazy to ignore the whole Plame affair. But if all this information is just presented without commentary or reason, or without insight into the main character’s psyche, then it really serves no greater purpose than your weird uncle who won’t stop forwarding you chain emails rehashing shadowy government conspiracies. All of this ties into ties into the movie’s ultimate sin: there’s little exploration of the WHY. For films like these to work, whether its Nixon or Downfall or Richard III, the driving force that makes us care about the story is why the main character is the way he is. Why does he make these choices, what are his hopes and fears, and above all, what makes his moral psyche the way that it is? Vice shows us a lot about Cheney’s life – almost sixty years of it, in fact. It shows us his time in the White House, in Congress, in retirement, and back in the White House. We see almost every major decision he was a part of, and we see every single ramification of these decisions. But what we never see is “Why?” Why does Cheney want to be in perpetual war? Why does Cheney care so little about economic issues? Why does he care so little about if other people like him as long as he has power? And so on.
The only glimpse into the mindset of the politicians presented is when a young Cheney asks Rumsfeld, his newfound mentor, “What is it we believe in?” and Rumsfeld bursts out laughing. This is a funny moment, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t answer anything. If you believe in nothing, you wouldn’t risk endless war with two countries over it, you wouldn’t vote No on every bill in Congress “just because,” and you wouldn’t take the calculated risk of becoming the Vice President of a green newcomer on the off-chance that he hands you an unprecedented amount of power that you can use to become the most powerful man in U.S. history. There’s no depth in that answer, and it essentially forces this movie to become a checklist of things that just happened. However, I will give McKay some credit – while he doesn’t really explore Cheney’s reasons why he is the way that he is, he does add enough humanity and heart to make him interesting. Dick Cheney is portrayed as a man who has some level of heart, regardless of his ruthless nature, and who is willing to do anything to protect his family. An early scene where he stands up to his wife’s abusive father is surprisingly heroic, and perhaps my favorite moments of the film come whenever Cheney interacts with daughter Mary (Alison Pill). His acceptance of his daughter’s homosexuality is beautifully honest, and when he and Bush eagerly and openly agree that anti-gay legislation is 100% off the table during their administration, it adds a level of nuance and depth to the film that is sorely lacking in other places. This love and devotion for family keeps Cheney from becoming a one-dimensional character, and it’s what makes the film’s finale so crushing, when he loses his heart (literally) at the same time he lost sight of the importance of family. And yes, a lot of that is probably thanks to Bale’s portrayal (I’ll talk about that in a minute), but there had to have been something in the writing to give the actor the inkling to add a soul.
As for the actual execution of this film, Vice fares a little better, although it’s still a mixed bag of scrambled ideas. Technically, this film is quite the visual marvel. Obviously the makeup is unbelievable, with Rockwell and Tyler Perry bearing a striking resemblance to their counterparts while Carell and especially Bale completely morph into their characters (at least physically). Kudos to the team that managed to pull that off. And in terms of editing, this film is really a grand follow-up to The Big Short (although the magic of that film’s innovation has worn off by now). The quick cuts, changing timelines and random intercuts all flow together seamlessly, and one of the best moments of the film is a match-cut from a nervous Bush tapping his foot during his televised declaration of war with Iraq and a terrified father tapping his foot while comforting his family during a U.S. bombing strike. It’s powerful imagery, and it stands to prove just how vital editing can be. However, even something as easy and as nuanced as the technical is too much for McKay’s greedy hands to handle, as he indulges a few too many times in his own McKayisms. To define “McKayisms,” these are the visually comedic explanations given to the audience to help them understand the story – essentially little Anchorman-esque asides to help the viewer understand something dense and complex. In The Big Short, McKay wisely used these gimmicks sparsely, deploying them for maximum impact and to successfully catch the audience up to speed on something made needlessly complicated by bankers and politicians. However, in Vice, these McKayisms are employed to explain things as basic as “this is what torture means” or “this is what a president does,” implying (intentionally or otherwise) that McKay believes that the audiences seeing his movies are too dumb to understand fourth grade politics (I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, but the post-credits sequence he slides into the film seems to imply it is intentional). What’s more, the McKayisms used are a hodge-podge of successes and failures. For every successful McKayism, like a board game that shows Cheney successfully undermining Bush by replacing Cabinet and White House choices with his own selections, or a false ending where Cheney steps down from public office in 1992 to spend time with his family and is remembered in the history books as a hero as the credits roll, there are at least two unsuccessful ones, including a “restaurant” for Enhanced Interrogation techniques (as dumb as it sounds, and a complete waste of Alfred Molina), a narrator who will end up being “intimately related to Dick Cheney” (again, a waste of Jesse Plemons), an overwrought Shakespearean sequence to demonstrate that “Dick and Lynne are plotting,” and a fishing analogy to show Cheney seducing Bush that is so on-the-nose and so unnecessary that it never even approaches funny. This is a film with a lot of gimmicks and not too much plot analysis. I guess, if pressed, it’s the best Oliver Stone movie never made (or made, if you include 2008’s W.). However, based on the way McKay plays with fact and narrative to try to tell an “important” story, I realize that this film should have been a documentary all along. McKay was so busy trying to play Stanley Kubrick and create something alive and agitprop, he completely forgot that he could have used all his crazy tricks, all his intellect, and all his love of nonfiction and created a modern-day Michael Moore epic, like Roger and Me or Bowling for Columbine. It would have allowed him the freedom to utilize all the techniques he loves so much and freed him from the overwhelming burden of having to construct a worthwhile narrative. What a pity that he didn’t think of this sooner.
Thankfully, the actors come along to provide the only wholeheartedly excellent part of this entire production. I think the reason the actors in this film are so great is because each and every one of them desires to loan their characters a humanity that McKay himself was too egotistical to write. Christian Bale is truly remarkable as Cheney – not only does he have the vocal inflections, mannerisms, and look down pat, but he fills the performance with honest touches and looks that flesh out the broad caricature that McKay constructed and most Americans tend to picture. It sets the bar of performances so high, it oftentimes is hard for his fellow actors to compete. Amy Adams often feels out of place as Lynne Cheney, but she really taps into something during the sequences where she stumps for her husband in Washington. That scene really is incredible, as it not only gives Adams a chance to truly shine, but actually says something about Mrs. Cheney as a character, and explores her desire to be a great political figure in a time when her brains and intellect weren’t respected or valued by society. Carell and Perry both do an adequate job portraying Rumsfeld and Powell – there’s not much to the roles beyond a Saturday Night Live impressions, but at least they look like their characters. Few other performances really have a chance to shine (Bill Camp is truly wasted as Gerald Ford), although I do want to shout out truly great character actor Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, not only because it was a great performance, but because HAHAHAHAHAHA SCOOTER LIBBY! And finally, I want to talk for a minute about Sam Rockwell as George Bush. Rockwell is decent as Bush, even if he doesn’t really dive deep into the man’s psyche. He has the look down (for the most part), and he has the voice, but on the surface it’s more an impression than anything else. However, what I like about Rockwell’s performance is that he’s doing something far more interesting than Bale’s Cheney. While Rockwell often veers towards impersonation with his performance, a la Will Ferrell, both Rockwell and McKay decidedly avoid portraying Bush as the complete idiot that most people portray him as, nor is he portrayed as secretly evil. Rockwell’s Bush is a green people pleaser, a man who desires to please his father and the country, and is desperately afraid that people won’t like him. He’s not portrayed as a bad man, as can be seen by his conversations about Mary with Cheney; he’s just a bit naïve, and his nerves about undertaking such an enormous responsibility make him susceptible to manipulation. It’s a fascinating interpretation, and one that I wish the rest of the film had explored rather than ignored.
At the end of the day, it is my job to tell you if the movie’s any good. And my answer is: I guess? These are the movies I hate to review, because there’s so much to like and so much to hate all at the same time. In terms of executing the technical criteria of a film, it does meet these bars, and mostly with great ease. The direction is competent, the editing is great, and the acting is top-notch across the board. And in terms of story, there’s certainly something there – regardless of what you think of this film, the politics, and the man overall, Vice objectively tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But if you’re asking me if all of these great aspects come together to execute a good story that accomplishes its goals and themes, I’ve gotta say no. And how do you judge a movie that does everything so right but fails at its only true objective? It’s the Shaquille O’Neal of movies: sure, he finds success because he’s tall enough to dunk the basketball and swat it away when the other team shoots. But if you’re asking me if O’Neal is the greatest basketball player of all time, I’m immediately going to think back on his free throws and three-pointers. Vice has enough flashy elements to be a consistently good player, but it struggles with too many of the fundamentals to ever reach the greatness it strives for.