Welcome to America, a land of revulsive political distinction, cunning, and prowess that is as stereotypical in this regard as France is for boulangeries. It is a near infinite well of corruption that is bursting at the seams with shocking, adaptable stories for filmmakers. The problem here is that it is near infinite. Where does someone begin if they want to critique the U.S. government? The bloodthirsty executive powers atop the military industrial complex? The slimy, commonplace lobbying practices of mass conglomerates that daily reinforce Nitzan and Bichler’s concept of capital-as-power? The politicians who feed from the troughs of these conglomerates? The allowance of gerrymandering for the sake of voter suppression? The knotted web made of selfish, divisive industries that are skinning the Earth alive and reaping the benefit of its resources? The slew of murderous wars past presidents engaged and aggrandized post-World War II? Or all of the above: Dick Cheney.
The first definition of “vice” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “moral depravity or corruption: wickedness.” That is Dick Cheney in a nutshell. Some of you already know that going in, others will find out by the time they leave. Writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) knows all too well. His new film Vice takes us through the life and times of Cheney (played by Christian Bale) from his sub-par college career (he dropped out of Yale twice and eventually got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming in six years) to his once rocky marriage to Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) to his congressional internship in 1969 to his employment by Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in the Office of Economic Opportunity in the same year to his appointment as Chief of Staff for President Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) in the 70s to his ten year reign in the House of Representatives for Wyoming in the 80s to his position as Secretary of Defense under the late President George H. W. Bush (John Hillner) in the 90s to his eight year Vice Presidency alongside President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) in the 21st century for which he is most infamous. The film’s thesis: he was a brazenly corrupt, secretive, and successful man… no, world leader.
The first glimpse we get of Cheney is in the Situation Room on 9/11 where he, as Vice President, calmly and confidently assumes the role of the President with questionable authority. In the next scene, he is in a dark bar in Wyoming in 1962 where he gets absolutely plastered and proceeds to take a joy ride, earning the first of his DWIs. We jump around in time like this throughout the film. One minute we’re with a young, schmoozing Cheney, the next with a Cheney that orders drone strikes on women and children in the Middle East, and the next with a calculating Cheney in between the two extremes. It has the same coke-riddled pace as Mckay’s previous film, The Big Short (2015), but, unlike last time, not because of its subject’s addictions. Likewise, it has the same blend of savvy, witty, educational, absurd, and entertaining character as its predecessor, no doubt a product of its risk-taking, all-star production team (Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, Megan Ellison, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin Messick, and McKay).
Vice is intended to be a wild ride and sometimes it is, but it feels so much less wild when considering The Big Short. There’s no crime in repeating an aesthetic, tone, or directorial timbre. It’s impressive when a director can manage a recognizable fluidity and consistency in their filmography. I go to Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Jan Troell, Nagisa Ôshima, Claire Denis, and the like because I adore their particular styles and modes of storytelling. But it would be criminal to accuse any of them of simply making the same film twice. They are remarkable because they have upheld a distinct directorial identity while tending to each new film with a singular approach. It would be too dismissive to say that McKay has merely copied and pasted The Big Short onto Vice, but it would be giving him way too much credit to say he took a new approach.
It also bears striking resemblance to Oliver Stone’s W., a biopic about George W. Bush that is not coincidentally related in narrative structure, subject matter, or style. Both films take liberties in imagining the drunken youth of their similarly-positioned subjects as an inspiration for future political power. Both take even greater liberties in trying to accurately fictionalize the behind-the-scenes White House happenings of the storied Bush administration. Both employ handheld camera techniques to imply a constant lack of ethical grounding and moral direction in life. The list of parallels goes on. Whether McKay is paying homage to a great political dramatist who has paved the way for films like Vice, or simply hoping we have forgotten about W. is unclear, but he forks off into his own conviction and tone enough to distance himself from accusations of directorial plagiarism. The greatest distance is in their approaches. Where Stone chooses to empathetically dig into Bush’s motivations, McKay apathetically chastises Cheney’s actions.
McKay is not shy about his condemnation of Cheney. He comes out of the gates blazing, wanting his audience to know what kind of perspective they’re about to indulge (don’t forget to stay for the chippy post-credits sequence that addresses this by the liberal-conservative divide). And, quite frankly, it’s an appropriate stance. In the past decade, contemporary historians have done enough research to warrant a light lifting of the liberal gas pedal of rage on Bush and a redirected, full throttle stomp on the same pedal toward Cheney. No one in the administration is innocent, but it’s time to start popularizing who the most avaricious party truly was.
I was fortunate enough to have studied Cheney for a semester in grad school in a class about the ethics of war (of which he was the most voracious of predators), and I’m sure some of you have had the same fury-inducing privilege. For those of you in the know, the film will feel too easy to ingest, a claim that—prior to seeing it—I would’ve bet against more confidently than I would’ve bet on the Warriors winning another championship this year. I left feeling parched, wishing instead that Cheney had gotten the all-inclusive 17-hour Ken Burns documentary treatment so people actually knew how fucking terrible of a person he truly was according to his actions in office.
At the same time, I recognize that McKay does genuinely want to educate his audience, and there is no way to cram so much information into two hours. I, and clearly McKay, also recognize that as true as Cheney’s horrendous career is, the average person does not want to go to the movies for strict, sober, and heavy political education. That’s what graduate degrees are for. They want to be entertained, and McKay deserves a lot of credit for his ability to both educate and entertain an audience with cutting political criticism. Yet in all of its narrative hijinks and comedic acrobatics it only manages to be mildly impressive.
In its most outlandish attempts to entertain, there is a 1:1 ratio of hilarity and tedious excess. The performances are equally terrific and over-stylized. Shakespearean diatribes break out, the film ends abruptly in the middle, Naomi Watts reprises Margot Robbie’s role as the A-list, fourth-wall-breaking educator. But whenever you’re on the brink of the epiphany that Colin Powell is being played by an unrecognizable Tyler Perry, or that Cheney just became a glorified, high profile Halliburton lobbyist in the Bush administration, something stumps the appreciation. It’s like having a great time with a new friend until they earnestly ask you to check out their Soundcloud, or nearing an orgasm right as your partner’s pager goes off and they have to rush to work.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Cheney’s career, know that the film hardly scratches the surface of his military industrial complex dictatorship, international war crimes, and breaches of ethical use of political power. And not because McKay probably doesn’t want to get deeper, but because he and his team are smart about what they can get away with. At the end of the day it is truly damning of Cheney in its own fun way, and that is certainly better than nothing. At the very least, maybe it will serve for some as an introduction to Cheney’s perturbing tenure that will lead to more research.
Adam McKay is doing something rather reckless with his career. He had a cushiony position alongside Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell as co-writer and director of anything and everything Funny-or-Die-esque (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers), and he put it aside to write and direct political dramedies. What would be career suicide for most has turned out well for him so far, regardless of how Vice fares in the annals of film history (it will be forgotten). The Big Short was lauded and decorated with nominations, and as of Golden Globe Friday, Vice is looking to follow a similar trajectory. It’s certainly not his best, but it isn’t his worst either. That any party not made entirely of industry moguls and rapacious politicians would invest any effort or emotion in protesting the accountability of those in power that is at the heart of this film is sheer proof of the catastrophic nature of blind political devotion and the self-ruinous essence of partisan politics. No matter where we land politically, we should all agree that the bloodthirsty, trigger-happy, greedy, inhumane, and devilishly sly politics of Dick Cheney, and others like him (who exist in all political parties to a lesser degree), are ethically corrupt. That kind of political practice hurts us all.