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Vice

Posted December 28, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Back in 2015, Adam McKay gave us The Big Short. It kicked ass. The film was a brutal and uncompromising examination of the Great Recession and all the fucked-up legal and cultural factors that not only made the Recession happen, but continue to persist long after those factors destroyed our economy. The movie used razor-sharp wit and pitch-black comedy, with an impressive array of innovations and ideas, to make sure we all knew exactly how the Recession happened and why we should still be pissed off about it.

So here’s Vice, in which McKay tells the story of Vice President Dick Cheney (here immortalized by Christian Bale). A movie about the famously chaotic Dubya years, in which everybody knew the Boy King was an incompetent clown while Cheney was the comically evil war profiteer who was really in charge? And it’s being made by the writer/director (along with much of the cast and crew) of The Big Short? Oh, I had to see this.

(Side note: It amuses me to see Vice released opposite Holmes and Watson, as both movies were produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. That really speaks to the confidence they had in Holmes and Watson, doesn’t it?)

Right off the bat, Vice proves to be the inferior movie because it falls into the classic biopic trap. The Big Short only took place over two years, so it was able to tell a much tighter story with a sharper focus on the 2007 stock market crash. Compare that to Vice, which more or less spans from the Cambodia Campaign of 1969 to Obama’s election in 2008. Naturally, this means that the movie is going to spread itself thin, with only a passing mention given to several world-shaking events.

The common thread through all of this is Dick Cheney and his ruthless ascent into power. The filmmakers are crystal clear in showing how Cheney had been lurking among the wealthy and powerful for forty years, and had some degree of influence in establishing Republican control over everything from the media to the White House.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I hate Cheney as much as the next guy. But isn’t it a little hyperbolic to state that everything wrong with the Republican party and Washington D.C. is Cheney’s fault? I’m pretty sure there’s enough blame to go around, is all I’m saying.

At this point, I feel it necessary to make an important clarification: This is not about Republicans and Democrats. That particular partisan divide barely comes up at any point in the movie. No, the movie is very clear in establishing the divide between Team Cheney and everyone else. The filmmakers even went so far as to put in a massive sequence, using board game pieces to designate “Cheney’s people” and how they’re placed throughout D.C. so that none of Dubya’s people or anyone else can get in the way.

Moreover, while the movie doesn’t mention this, Dick Cheney left in 2008 with an approval rating of 13 percent. This is not a partisan issue: Everyone hated Dick Cheney, Republicans and Democrats alike. We all knew he was a rat bastard. We all knew he was on the take with Halliburton. We all knew he was the heartless, soulless, comically evil bastard running the show, because God knows George W. Bush could barely eat a pretzel, much less lead the free world.

But here’s an important point, and it’s one that doesn’t come up until the film is practically over: We voted for him. Even in spite of everything we knew perfectly damn well about Dick Cheney and his boss, we still elected them into power. Twice. That’s an important complicating factor not present in the story of The Big Short, and it’s not a thing the filmmakers really have any idea what to do with. While The Big Short was good enough to portray the common working man as someone who got unfairly and completely screwed over, Vice seems content to portray us as a bunch of howling idiots who’d rather indulge in shallow and mindless entertainment than engage in civil and informed political discourse.

This leads me to wonder who exactly this movie was made for, and precisely what anyone is supposed to do with it.

Even more confusing, the movie ends with Cheney talking directly into the camera, lecturing us on how he made the decisions that would keep us safe, even when it wasn’t the popular choice. This comes right the fuck outta nowhere, after the filmmakers spend two solid hours using every trick in the book to show how Cheney did everything for the sole and explicit purpose of solidifying his own power, with no regard for anyone else’s safety but his own.

Even when the filmmakers try to humanize Cheney, it falls flat at the end. Yes, the filmmakers go out of their way to show that Cheney really does care for his family. His marriage is portrayed in exhaustive detail, and Cheney is shown to be perfectly supportive of his gay daughter (that’s Mary Cheney, played as an adult by Allison Pill). But at the very end, when elder daughter Liz Cheney (played as an adult by Lily Rabe) has to choose between denouncing gay marriage or losing an election, Liz throws her sister under the bus with her father’s full blessing. So truly, there is nothing Cheney won’t do to secure power.

Little wonder that the film contradicts itself when it goes sprawling in so many different directions, trying to cover so many angles at once. Even when the movie breaks the fourth wall, brings in visual metaphors, introduces a narrator, or employs other explanatory devices in the spirit of The Big Short, they’re all employed in a slipshod and clumsy manner. None of them are especially clever or funny or enlightening, certainly not to the caliber of the previous movie. Some of the asides were totally unnecessary, as when Dick and Lynne start talking in Shakespearean prose for no reason. Others were worn out past the point of welcome, like the recurring metaphor of fishing.

That said, there is certainly a lot here to like, and the cast is foremost among them. Christian Bale immerses himself into this role like never before (and I don’t say that lightly). He perfectly delivers the sharp glint of intelligence in Dick Cheney’s eyes, even as he emulates the VP’s signature shrugs and the way he talks from one side of his mouth. It’s a flawless impersonation. Of course, kudos are also due to Amy Adams’ spirited performance as Lynne Cheney, and her established working relationship with Bale under David O. Russell pays all sorts of dividends here.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Steve Carrell, Tyler Perry, Sam Rockwell, and LisaGay Hamilton delivering dead-ringer impersonations of so many ’00s politicians we love to hate. That’s not even getting started on Allison Pill, Shea Whigham, Jesse Plemons, Eddie Marsan, and all the other rock-solid supporting players in the cast. We’ve even got Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina on board in prominent cameo roles. With all respect to the phenomenal makeup department, every single performance in here is astounding across the board.

And of course there’s the fact that none of the filmmakers’ anger is misplaced. Yes, it sucks that the White House manufactured a war in Iraq just so they could use “time of war” as a convenient excuse to grab more power. Yes, it sucks that the Fairness Doctrine was voted down so unfounded opinions could take the place of news and state propaganda could be blasted 24/7 across the airwaves. Yes, it sucks that focus groups were extensively used for the clear purpose of developing lies that the public would swallow.

But getting back to my earlier question, what are we supposed to do with this? Sure, it’s all well and good that the filmmakers drew a direct line from 1969 to the present day, showing how our politics got to this point, and there’s certainly value in that. But the movie stops short of suggesting what we can do in the here and now to fix things. We can pass laws and bolster government oversight to make sure The Big Short never happens again — what the hell are we supposed to do to stop another Dick Cheney from coming along?

Vice was the product of so much talent and intelligence that it couldn’t be completely without merit. The actors alone are worthy of a recommendation, most especially those of Christian Bale and Steve Carell. Additionally, I admire and appreciate the level of detail the filmmakers went into, depicting what we know about the events of the Dubya years in spite of how much we still don’t know. That said, the movie ultimately falls apart because the filmmakers are so angry at so many facets of the modern Republican party. We get a ton of general hostility sprayed in so many different directions, and not much in the way of a coherent statement. It certainly doesn’t help that the comedy is inconsistent, and the metatextual “visual aids” are more distracting than anything else.

Lightning didn’t strike twice, I’m afraid. Awards completists will do well to check this one out when Oscar season rolls around, and I can recommend a home viewing for the curious. Otherwise, you’re better off sticking with The Big Short.