Dan's Review: McKay's overindulgent "Vice" won't change any minds
Dec 24, 2018 09:09AM
● By Dan Metcalf
Christian Bale and Amy Adams in Vice - © 2018 Anapurna Pictures.
Vice (Anapurna Pictures)
Rated R for language and some violent images.
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Bill Pullman, Stefania LaVie Owen, Adam Bartley, Kirk Bovill, Jillian Armenante, Bill Camp, Fay Masterson, Joseph Beck, Alex MacNicoll, Aidan Gail, Cailee Spaeny, Karolina Kennedy Durrence, Violet Hicks, Paul Perri.
Written and Directed by Adam McKay.
Politics, man. Everybody’s got opinions, their own selective set of facts, filtered views of history, and a whole bunch of dank memes posted on social media to support all of the above. Filmmakers have them too, and no one more than Adam McKay, a guy who used to make goofy comedy segments for the College Humor website and goofy films like Talladega Nights but is now hyper-focused on crusading against all things conservative. He took a sharp jab at “the man” in 2016’s The Big Short, in which Wall Street, the Bush administration and one-percenters were eviscerated over what he saw as the deep-state cause of the 2008 Recession and housing bubble burst. His latest target is former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice, released nationwide on Christmas Day.
Vice is the “mostly” true story (McKay himself admits he’s filling in a lot of gaps, blaming the lack of context on the VP’s secretive nature) of Cheney’s (Christian Bale) rise from a drunken embarrassment to the halls of the White House as George W. Bush’s right-hand man. That history entails Cheney’s marriage to Lynne (Amy Adams) raising their two daughters Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe), his ascension to the halls of Congress through an internship and acquaintance with then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), being named White House chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford (Bill Camp), his own election to Congress (representing Wyoming) his appointment as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush, his corporate activities with Halliburton, and his eventual vice-presidency to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). The film is narrated by an unnamed Iraq war veteran (played by Jesse Plemons) who is presented as the guy who would eventually die, and his heart transplanted into Cheney following several heart attacks and years of bad habits over the years, like smoking, drinking and having a really bad diet. The rest of Adam McKay’s diatribe lays out a case for Cheney being the source for all the world’s maladies, from global warming, to economic ruin, wildfires, wars (past and present), the formation of Fox News (should you consider that a malady), and ultimately, Donald Trump. Allow me to reiterate one of McKay’s central points: The Iraq War solely is connected to Cheney’s greed and tied to his corporate interests at Halliburton, and no other factor is in play here. Not terrorism, not past history, not economic factors, and especially not because of a majority of politicians (including Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who appears in the film as being duped by Cheney’s sinister efforts) who were calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein. Very subtle? You decide.
Vice is a film that feels like Adam McKay’s political “wet dream”; the culmination of a super intense effort to make sure everyone understands just how much he hates Dick Cheney (and conservativism in general). He’s like the stereotyped multi-level marketer or vegan who just HAS to tell about this thing he’s passionate about. Unfortunately for Vice, McKay presents his case against Cheney as an unnuanced attempt at satire, laced with an ample supply of hand-picked historical facts, contrived events/dialogue, and a lot of dot-connecting that rivals anything conspiracy theorists like Michael Moore or Oliver Stone ever imagined. Satire is supposed to sting a little. McKay's version of satire plunges a knife in and twists.
The crux of McKay’s evidence against Cheney lies in the implication that he drummed up usage of the “unitary executive theory” (via a sinister characterization of the late Antonin Scalia in the film, complete with “booga-booga”-like mustache-twirling villainy) which is the idea that all executive power of the Constitution rests with the presidency, from war powers to legal interpretation (note: it’s a complicated notion up for a lot of wonky debate, so if you Google it, you may be immediately bored to tears). I don’t think McKay really wants anyone to understand such complexities but would rather you trust him that there’s something rotten in Denmark.
The movie’s only saving grace is the cast performance, anchored by another incredible, chameleon achievement from Christian Bale - who becomes Cheney, right down to his gruff voice uttered through clenched teeth to the impressive weight gain he endured to play the role. Other characterizations are less subtle, especially Amy Adams as a screeching battle ax and Lady Macbeth to the vice-throne – as well as Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of Rumsfeld as a political hooligan-bro. Sam Rockwell’s turn as George W. Bush is noteworthy, giving him some credit for being a little craftier than the usual popular cartoonish representations of “Dubya” as an imbecile.
These bright spots in Vice are overshadowed by McKay’s clear tribalism. For instance, throughout the movie, Cheney is depicted as a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage, due to the love and respect he has for his daughter Mary, who is a lesbian. But McKay couldn’t leave it alone and added a scene at the end of the film in which Cheney apparently throws Mary under the bus. This never happened, as Cheney continues to be a crusader for same-sex marriage rights, even at the state level.
Look, I get it. Dick Cheney is not especially well-liked, even by fellow Republicans. Being politically unaffiliated, I don't like him. Moreover, the historic events surrounding his tenure in politics are unpleasant at the least and downright tragic at the most. That stated, there are plenty of negative aspects of Cheney's life to go around without making stuff up, nor reducing him to an inhuman monster. This sort of zero-sum worldview is exactly what's wrong with the current political environment, and Vice adds more kerosene to the fire.
McKay wraps up the movie with an imagined focus group in which a conservative guy gets in and an argument with a liberal guy about the political slant of the movie (and Trump), culminating with the conservative punching the liberal. It comes across as a comedic distraction as if we’re all supposed to shrug and chuckle at the ridiculousness of his McKay’s transparent political views while excusing the shortcuts he made to arrive at the ludicrous conclusions of Vice. If you belong to the tribal chorus of McKay, knock yourself out and have a chuckle. If you like your satire a little more nuanced, don’t belong to the choir McKay is preaching to, and appreciate a more balanced approach to political history, you may want to sit this one out.
In the end, Vice is a multimillion-dollar dank meme, brought to you from a man who’s made up his mind, and just like all those slanted posts in your social media feeds from your crazy relatives, it won't change anyone else's mind, either.