7.5 out of 10
Christian Bale as President Dick Cheney
Joseph Beck as Karl Rove
Directed by Adam McKay
Biography’s (filmed or otherwise) don’t just tell us something about the subject; they tell us quite a bit about the author as well. A hagiography would be hard for someone who didn’t idolize their subject, a sarcastic critique equally difficult for someone who didn’t fundamentally dislike or disagree with their focus. Vice, the life story of Richard Bruce ‘Dick’ Cheney – the 46th Vice President of the United States – is made by someone who fundamentally dislikes his subject. This isn’t the end of the world, usually it’s the point where good satire starts. But Vice isn’t satire, no matter how funny or stylistically adventurous it gets, and its feelings about Cheney threaten to open a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory which could consume any merit the film has.
Cheney’s (Bale) tenure as Vice President – ‘Vice’ as President George W. Bush liked to call him – has been contentious at best. A great believer in the unitary theory of the executive, he was at the forefront of many of that administrations most controversial decisions from rendition to torture to the invasion of Iraq. So controversial, in fact, that we’re still (and likely will still be) arguing the motives behind them a decade later. Was he a dedicated public servant doing what he thought necessary to preserve his country from an irreconcilable clash of cultures? Or a power hungry administrator addicted to the exercise of authority regardless of who was trampled in his path? Was he both?
For writer-director Adam McKay (who unraveled a similarly obtuse and complex subject in The Big Short) the chance to dig into someone like Cheney must have been irresistible. Cheney the man has been involved in the thick of Republican policy making for decades; digging into his life is a chance not just to invoke a wicked satire of a man he clearly despises but to explain and make clear all of the chicanery and underhandedness which has flown under most people’s radar for decades, and what it means for them. For McKay the rot stems back to the days of Nixon, when a young Cheney interned to up and comer Donald Rumsfeld (Carrell) and tasted of power for the first time. The same holds true for McKay, as the taste of how large a topic he can attempt – far above and the life of his subject – seems too appetizing. Despite an early exhortation to how important policy is usually misunderstood and/or ignored, and a focus on explaining it for those who ignore it, Vice doesn’t have enough attention span to follow through. It is content to simply list Cheney’s (and more broadly Republican) deeds and stand back, content in the self-evidence of its presentation. A young Roger Aisles appears in the Nixon White House as the omnipresent narrator (Plemons) clues us in on who he is – job done. A young Frank Luntz discusses renaming Global Warming as Climate Change to make it easier to ignore, then cut to forest fires in 2018 California. Connection unimpeachable.
There is no evil that can’t be placed at Cheney’s door, so fast and furious they trip over themselves into the last act. And there’s no site gag or fourth wall break McKay won’t serve them up with. One of the great pleasures of The Big Short was the way it subverted its own seriousness, just as often for a cheap laugh as to stop and cogently explain a complex idea in an entertaining way. Like a TED talk but with more re-watchability. The positive accolades (and Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for that approach must have stuck because McKay has turned the post-Modernism up to eleven for Vice.
It’s not unusual for an artist to develop a style all their own, in a lot of ways it’s the natural outgrowth of developing a voice. But style can easily be confused with artifice which pushes the audience away instead of drawing it in. When you stop paying attention to what happens in a John Woo film because you’re waiting for the doves to start flying, it’s time to put a lid on the doves. Much of Vice falls into that same hole, obfuscating it’s focus by attempting the recapture the adventurous nature of The Big Short’s narrative experimentation without using them for increasing understanding. They exist for themselves only.
Not that some of the excursions aren’t wonderfully creative on their own. Dick and Lynne’s (Adams) late night discussion about whether he should take the Vice President role retold as a classic Shakespearean dialogue (in Dick Cheney’s voice no less!) is just about worth the price of admission alone. But what does it offer as an understanding of what’s going on in the characters’ heads? It’s clever, but beyond drawing attention to itself for its cleverness, it doesn’t have much else to offer. Which pretty much sums Vice up.
All of that sounds like a description of a much worse movie than Vice is. Whatever problems it is, it is eminently entertaining and thoroughly watchable with a cast doing top notch work. Bale’s version of Cheney is so involved it quickly surpasses imitation (though as imitation goes, it’s pretty flawless) and flies towards personification. Adams matches him as much as possible, while much of the supporting cast do their best with small moments here and there (Vice is no ensemble by any means). Among them, Rockwell is the standout as an earnest, befuddled George W. Bush attempting to do his best in stressful, trying circumstances. Bush’s reading of the declaration of war against Iraq and its comparison to a terrified Iraqi family reaping the consequences reveals the heights McKay’s film can achieve. But it reaches them far too seldom.