We all have that acquaintance, friend, or family member who use their Facebook profile solely to antagonize members of their social circle whom they consider their political enemies. These are almost always people who would never do the same thing in a face to face setting. They like to “start shit,” but from the safety of their phone. These people are a shade different from what are popularly known as internet trolls, because they believe in the opinions they’re expressing, so it’s not 100% about getting under their target’s skin. It’s only 75% about that. Vice, Adam McKay’s inflammatory, obnoxious biopic about Dick Cheney, arguably the most destructive vice president in American history, is the cinematic equivalent of these true-believer assholes.
Let me be clear: I have no problem believing that every last detail McKay included in his film about Cheney is true. People are accusing the writer/director of playing fast and loose with the facts of Richard Bruce Cheney’s life and career in politics. In the movie’s opening text, McKay even makes a joke out of how hard it was to get to the truth of his subject. It tells us the story we are about to see is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history. But we did our fucking best.”
The things that journalists have unquestionably verified about Cheney’s time in office as vice president are horrifying enough. He lied over and over again to build support for the invasion of Iraq after 9/11. At a minimum, he played a key role in leaking the name of a covert CIA agent to the press. This was retribution when the agent’s husband questioned the evidence the Bush Administration relied on to prove Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Cheney shot a man in the face. Not only did he not apologize, the man he shot made a public statement apologizing to Cheney for everything the vice president endured because of the incident.
McKay’s film covers all this with unadulterated glee. It’s easy to imagine that the other events detailed in Vice that have murkier substantiation – like that Cheney effectively set up a shadow government that superseded President George W. Bush’s power – are also true.
The fatal flaw of McKay’s movie is in its tone. Vice is by turns smug and flippant. Like his 2015 film about the 2008 financial crash, The Big Short, McKay assumes his audience is either too dumb or addled by attention deficit disorder to take in just the facts. To make it as easily digestible as possible, every plot turn is delivered as a sarcastic joke and with editing and a visual design that provokes sensory overload. This aesthetic was only marginally effective in The Big Short. In Vice, it completely falls apart under the weight of the film’s subject matter. The jokes made at the expense of Cheney and company are downright distasteful when they are juxtaposed with ideas like torture, war, and death.
We are ushered through Cheney’s life story by an unnamed narrator who, by the film’s end, we find out has a unique relationship with him. Jesse Plemons, a wonderfully talented actor, gives one of his worst performances as the narrator. I don’t blame Plemons. I have to imagine McKay was on the other side of the recording booth giving notes while Plemons recorded his voice over narration. It seems as if the director wanted every word the actor spoke to drip with condescension.
There is also a certain disingenuousness to McKay’s argument about Americans not paying attention to the destructive behavior of Cheney and people like him. Early in the film, he makes a half-hearted attempt to absolve the great unwashed masses of some of their culpability. What ordinary American wants to deal with boring policy debates and investigative journalism when they get home from dead-end jobs that pay less and less? It’s only natural to zone out to reality TV and mindless hedonism. McKay puts the lie to his belief in this argument in the final seconds of Vice.
As the credits start to roll, the movie cuts to a focus group. In one of the film’s meta moments, the group is asked what they think about the movie they (and we) have just watched. Two men start to argue about the facts that McKay has presented. One of the men calls the other a “libtard” because he makes the case that facts matter, and everything in Vice is true.
As they get into a fist fight, a woman turns to another focus group member and says she can’t wait for the new Fast and Furious movie because “it’s gonna be lit.” It’s a bit of comedy that makes the character look like a complete idiot, but I couldn’t help but wonder if McKay was suffering from feelings of guilt about his own career. This is the man who brought us movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, all of which were released during the Bush Administration, no less. Perhaps the vitriol he’s unleashing in Vice is a subconscious need to make amends for an earlier career that contributed to our collective distraction.
McKay does make a few pointed jabs at the disgraceful Bush Administration that stick. As George W. Bush addresses the nation to make his case for the American invasion of Iraq, the camera slowly pans to his leg, which is nervously shaking. A smash cut shows a terrified Iraqi family cowering under their kitchen table as American bombs reign down from the sky. The leg of one of the family members is also uncontrollably shaking. It’s from fear of death, though, not of being on live TV.
Christian Bale gained 40 pounds to perform the role of Dick Cheney. That’s a classic Oscar-bait move in what is a classic Oscar-bait performance. While Bale is a bit broad – the overly dramatic pauses his Cheney takes during almost every speech he gives becomes preposterous – he does capture the essence of the man. There is a certain tick that Cheney does with his mouth, basically a smirk, that Bale absolutely nails.
Steve Carell does a fantastic job as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There is an absurd moment, however, as Carell unleashes uproarious laughter when Cheney, upon meeting Rumsfeld in the 1970s, asks what the Republican party believes in. Sam Rockwell is also spot-on as George W. Bush. The character is almost a non-entity in Vice, but that’s sort of the point.
Most biopics, even the ones about unsavory characters, seek to unlock the mystery about what makes their subject tick. Vice has no such curiosity about Dick Cheney. The movie exists solely as rage-bait for liberals who already believe the man at the center of the story did horrendous damage to American democracy (and, to be clear, I am one of those liberals).
That’s what makes Vice so exasperating. Its preaching-to-the-choir approach becomes boring and it sheds zero light on Cheney as a human being. The movie’s flashy style and attempt at black humor is deadening. Vice feels like a therapy session for McKay to exorcise his anger and guilt at producing the kind of mindless entertainment in the past that kept the American public distracted from the evils that Cheney perpetrated.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- I’m here for your message, Adam McKay. I am 1000% on board with the points he made in both The Big Short and Vice. But tonally, these movies just don’t work. It’s much worse in Vice than The Big Short. This movie is essentially McKay screaming at his audience for two hours. He’s the non-documentary filmmaker equivalent of Michael Moore. That’s a director I really loved who has gotten less effective the more histrionic his movies have become.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s one moment in the movie when the narrator describes Cheney’s decision early in his career to be “a humble servant to power.” If that were the movie’s central theme, and if it explored his descent (or ascent, depending on how you look at it) from that goal to simply becoming power mad, Vice might have been much more effective than it is.
- There is a scene midway thought the movie in which McKay imagines Cheney and his wife discussing his decision to be George W. Bush’s running mate as if it were from a Shakespearean play. It’s too clever by half – much like McKay’s imagining what might have happened if Cheney hadn’t decided to embrace the dark side, which is complemented with a fake credits sequence an hour into the movie.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I really wish I knew how this played to a room full of people. Since I saw it at the tale-end of it’s theatrical run, there were a total of three people at my screening. Myself, Rach, and one other person. Because of that, none of the jokes landed with uproarious laughter. I doubt my own reaction would have changed, but it would have been the optimal way to experience the movie.