Amy Adams and Christian Bale in Vice
Logic dictates that no one would make a film about something they purely, objectively hate. Movies take years to make, and being immersed in something that you profoundly detest would seem like the ultimate masochistic move. That’s not to say that all movies should, by default, be positive and filled with love, but that cataloguing any movie as a hit piece completely devoid of nuance should happen fairly rarely.
Even a film as venomously angry as Adam McKay’s latest left-wing explainer Vice offers some level of nuance when it comes to the profoundly detestable figure at its core. Nuance is generally in short order here, however. McKay’s latest is formally inventive and appreciably angry, but it’s also more than a little condescending to its audience. The American political landscape is so sharply divided these days that it seems unbelievably hopeful that it’s because some people just haven’t given it much thought. Talking to the audience that’s presumably already in the pocket as if they were simply doe-eyed innocents yields diminishing returns.
Vice is the story of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who ascends great heights in his once-unpromising political career. Vice opens with Cheney as a drunken college dropout, working for the electrical company and getting into bar fights five days a week. After a DUI arrest, Cheney is given an ultimatum by his sweetheart Lynne (Amy Adams): either he gives this shit up or she goes. Lynne is from a well-to-do family, highly educated and ambitious, but she’s a woman in the South in the 1960s, so there’s a ceiling to what she can achieve. Dick decides to be the man Lynne wants him to be, a process that eventually lands him in the White House. There, he aligns with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and becomes an important — if shadowy — player in American politics for nearly two decades. A Democratic sweep forces him out and, after trying his hand at running for office at a state level, Cheney becomes CEO of Halliburton, a multinational oil field corporation.
That’s where our story would end in most cases, an unspectacular celebration of American mediocrity boosted by the power of capitalism. But, of course, the heart-attack prone Cheney gets a second wind when he’s approached by a dim-bulb alcoholic who’s riding his father’s presidential coattails all the way to the top: soon-to-be President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Bush offers Cheney the vice-president position in his future administration. Though Cheney isn’t particularly enthused at first (considering the vice-president position to be mostly symbolic), he manages (spoiler alert: it’s actually not very hard) to convince Bush to hand over some of the more “boring” administrative tasks, therefore making Cheney the most powerful (and dangerous) man in the world at a particularly vulnerable time for America. Cheney essentially manipulates his way into having unfettered access and power, far surpassing anyone else in American government.
Vice suffers from a lot of the same inherent flaws as Michael Moore’s work: it’s blatant pamphleteering that presents itself as such with a confidence that soon spills over into smarmy, self-satisfied repetition. I’m 100 per cent the target audience for a movie like this, but even the target audience has its patience tested between the various screenwriting tricks and fakeouts, kabuki-level supporting performances and ironic detachment as empathy. Like McKay’s The Big Short, Vice takes a kaleidoscopic stylistic approach to the material, weaving together stock footage with new recreations, bits of industrial footage, old sitcoms, etc. It’s dynamic but curiously empty — a stylistic smorgasbord that McKay sometimes couples with the most heavy-handed choices imaginable.
Early in the film, Cheney is out fishing with this two daughters, who are maybe 7 and 9 at the time. It’s their first time fishing, and their father is showing them how to hook a worm onto a fishhook. It goes over so-so; the girls don’t want to hurt a living thing in order to capture and kill another living thing. “Sometimes, you have to make the fish believe you have something it wants,” says Cheney. Later, we come to the scene that McKay undoubtedly thinks is one of the centerpieces of his film. Dubya has invited Cheney to his ranch to discuss the possibility of becoming the vice-president — which Dick and Lynne are already acutely aware of and for which they have already devised a list of demands. As Cheney outlines these demands and Dubya chomps down on some chicken drumsticks like the country bumpkin he is, McKay intercuts footage of… Cheney fishing. And, of course, the scene concludes when Dick catches his fish… in both ways.
That’s not to say that all of Vice is a wash. It can be pretty funny, and McKay’s rambling free-for-all style does allow him to get a couple of good jabs in at the typical biopic format. Bale is predictably chameleonic as Cheney, although the purpose of such a realistic and grounded performance in a movie that’s anything but is dubious. (Though McKay clearly has a visceral hatred for what Cheney represents, he plays at least two emotional scenes completely straight, which is doubly perplexing.) Some of the choices are ingenious even if they don’t work, and seeing McKay apply the skills he honed as the head writer at SNL to something with this much scope is at the very least intriguing, even if it hardly pays off.
I have tremendous respect for McKay as a filmmaker. I was very much looking forward to Vice, if only because I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Unfortunately, McKay’s political outrage is the driving force behind Vice, to the detriment of everything else. It’s not that the outrage isn’t deserved or well-directed, it’s that McKay seems to either be speaking directly to people who are already convinced or to a mythical sort of politically involved viewer who just needs to be shown the facts to change their mind. Assuming you’re going to do any convincing these days is borderline laughable, so that can’t have been the goal. No — as far as I can tell, the audience for Vice is middle-aged people who comment “orange cheeto buffoon!” on every Trump-related article that crosses their timeline. It’s for people who live their life with the idea that feeling outrage is enough, who revel in the comfort that is repeatedly telling yourself that you’re fucked. It’s two hours of someone feeling outraged (deservedly so) and raising their arms to the sky, asking, “Am I the only one seeing this?!” You’re not. ■
Vice opens in Montreal theatres on Tuesday, Dec. 25. Watch the trailer below.
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