Vice will probably make you angry. Wherever you are on the political spectrum or in what you want from your filmgoing experience, Vice is likely to disappoint, frustrate, or simply piss you off. It intends to. Didactic, turgid, and tonally dissonant, Vice tries at-once to be over-the-top satire and down-to-earth investigative biography, entertainment and arthouse, a Very Funny Movie and a Very Serious Film. It fails on all accounts. Centered on the life of Dick Cheney (a bloated, heavily makeup-ed Christian Bale), writer/director Adam McKay tries every stylistic cinematic trick he can to keep our attention; editing, camerawork, long-takes, montages, narration, and breaking-the-fourth-wall scenes are all frantic and inconsistent. All of it feels like a gimmick, obvious and heavy-handed. Vice preaches loudly to the choir and calls them all idiots.
Like McKay’s The Big Short, Vice condescendingly treats its audience as stupid. Trading Margot Robbie in a bubble bath for Jesse Plemons as an anonymous everyman, Vice tells its story through a series of elliptical events following the political journey of Dick Cheney, even as it acknowledges up front that Cheney is an enigmatic persona and much of this narrative can only be inferred or assumed (read: we made some of this stuff up). Opening with September 11, 2001 and Cheney’s stoic taking charge of the situation, the film flashes back to his early days with his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), portraying her as the motivation for his pursuit of power. Just as Dick plays the role of a second-chair leader to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, chewing up scenery like bubblegum) while really being in the driver’s seat, Lynne comes across as Dick’s inspirational fuel (albeit she’s no Claire Underwood), a woman in love with power and using her husband to taste it.
Bale as Cheney will probably get awards recognition (especially for the makeup department), but it’s more of an impersonation than a performance, a reenactment of TV interviews and footage rather than any sort of psychological development of a human being. Similarly, Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s mentor turned lackey, in a way which feels more like a caricature than a character, hamming it up so we can laugh at his expense and delight in any downfalls. As a drama and biography, there are very few actual human characters to relate to; Alison Pill as Cheney’s gay daughter, Mary, comes close, although she’s given such little screen time (and most of it is her crying). This is a great ensemble of actors in a problematic film.
As a comedy, I found Vice to be deeply unfunny, from its crass opening title card until its find snarky post-credits scene (mild spoilers): in a marketing focus group, an angry right-wing man says he hated the movie (he’s talking about Vice) because it obviously had a “liberal bias.” Another (left-leaning) man says that the movie is just presenting facts, so does believing in facts make him a “libtard”? The right-wing man punches the left-wing man in the face. While they fight on the floor, a millennial-aged woman nonchalantly turns to a friend and says she’s looking forward to the new Fast and the Furious movie, ’cause “it’s gonna be lit” (end of spoilers). Apparently this is how McKay sees America. It’s both excessive and simplistic; these are been-there-done-that jokes and they’re not outrageous enough. If you’re going to go down the warpath of satire, surprise us with biting, damning stuff. Have the right-wing guy *shoot* the “libtard” and get away with it. Instead, the humor is self-congratulatory about its own cleverness, which is just exhausting.
Vice relies heavily on match cuts between archival footage and present-day events with a This Is Just Like That patronizing tone. We see Ronald Reagan saying “make America great again,” Roger Ailes chatting with a young Cheney before the film cuts to fake Fox News footage (with Naomi Watts as anchor!), or White House conversations about “enhanced interrogation” interspersed with torture scenes (some archival footage, some reenactments). But there is little sense of care or respect in using such footage for provocation. Scenes of torture, war violence, child detention centers, or 9/11 are mere tools to stir up our anger (as these images should) in a manner not dissimilar to propaganda. This isn’t honoring to those lives lost; it’s using them as props, sometimes even as jokes. Repeated metaphors–falling stack of teacups, heart surgery, fly fishing–are either so blunt or so opaque as to be essentially meaningless. As an example, there’s a shot of George W. Bush giving a speech to the nation declaring the war on Iraq; the camera pans downward to his leg under the desk, shaking nervously. The scene cuts to an Iraqi family hiding under a dining table, the camera focusing on the shaking leg of the father. What does this parallel montage of images mean? That both men were frightened? But this feels too obvious. That the Iraqis are “just like us,” the Americans? Then the message gets lost in the parallel men’s roles in this war (one instigator, the other victim). That Bush was a fellow victim of Iraq? An unsettling suggestion.
The thing is, I personally agree with much of what Vice is espousing about the injustice and illegality of the Iraq war, military torture, tax cuts for the hyper-wealthy, Fox News, etc. I am no fan of Cheney, his actions, or his policies. I am, in large part, the choir. But Vice is the cinematic equivalent of a trollish angry Twitter rant–it’s outbursty, bombastic, reactionary, and aiming more to get a rise out of people (and lots of attention for itself) rather than actually address or fix real issues. It’s just stirring shit up, then sitting back with a smug giggle. (It’ll probably win an Oscar for its efforts.) In this, it’s part of the cultural problem it’s trying so hard to lambast–Vice is a shallow distraction from the real-life systemic political and ethical action that needs to take place both for American individuals and as a whole nation. Vice isn’t bringing anybody together this holiday season to truly discuss our nation’s problems. Merry Christmas, America.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6266538/