Since the year 2000, it’s pretty safe to say American politics changed in a massive way. However, before the events of 9/11, the world was already shifting. Deregulation was a common occurrence, information was moving faster than ever, and the world was getting smaller. The birth of the internet remains the most important moment in defining the modern world, but the ways politics shifted after that moment escalated the world’s turn to the right on the political spectrum. That makes Vice, a breakdown of how Dick Cheney directly influenced world policy an interesting character study and concept for the film. Yet Adam McKay wears his personal politics on his sleeve, much in the same way that Oliver Stone had during the early 1990s. The resulting film proves that McKay is a capable director, one that really deserves his place among the best in Hollywood. Yet at the same time, he shoots his shot from such a biased viewpoint, that it ultimately becomes problematic in its own right.
Vice follows Cheney (Christian Bale) throughout his life, from the early 1960s in Wyoming to his daughter running for public office in 2016. It starts with his early drinking days with his soon to be wife Lynne (Amy Adams) and his beginnings in politics. After seeing Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) speak as a Congressional intern, Cheney begins his path to acquire power. This culminates in his bid for the Vice Presidency with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), and the events of 9/11. The story also weaves in his relationships with his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary (Alison Pill), and features extensive narration from a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons).
The ensemble really shows up ready to play, and McKay gives them a lot of material to work from. What makes Vice such an interesting watch is the flashiness of both the screenplay and the direction. Truly unlike any films in recent memory, the movie blends in Shakespearean siliques, fast cuts, nature documentary footage, absurdist humor, and some of the most insane footage you’ve ever seen on film. McKay must have shot a lot of footage, only to return to source footage and blend in even more. Sequences take place in Iraq, Cambodia, and other countries around the world, hoping to deliver the true brutality of what war can do the civilians of those countries.
Combining this insane blend of footage would be one thing, but then the screenplay adds pure insanity to the mix. McKay really rears up his actors to spit some of the most absurd dialogue you’ve ever heard on screen. Rather than make everything feel like a functional White House like Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, the screenplay has more in common with vulgar dialogue from In the Loop or The Death of Stalin. McKay pushes the limits as he did in many of his comedic outings with Will Farrell. Unlike many of those movies, he hammers home points with the bluntest metaphors possible. One in particular towards the end of the film might be heaviest his hand ever gets.
Utilizing Plemons as the narrator feels like he’s treating his audience like children. He’s basically there to break the audience out of a moment, explain to them an idea or concept, and then work us back into the movie. Shockingly, I think his moments in The Big Short used a lighter hand. However, in his defense, two people walked out of my showing in the first fifteen minutes for how negative the movie was about Chaney. Twenty minutes later, another couple walked out because it was too kind. Like The Wolf of Wall Street before it, the depictions of Cheney and his character might be too divisive.
While McKay juggles a lot in the air, there’s a lot to love about the performances. Bale clears the way in the film, delivering a transformative performance that is easily among the best of the year. Adams gets great material early, but as the movie progresses, she fades into the background. Her character screams Lady Macbeth (down to even performing a Shakespearian soliloquy, but the way the movie drops her after he chooses to be VP really stings.
Carrell seems like he’s Carrell at this point, and despite a good moment late, his Rumsfeld is not particularly compelling. Plemons gets little to do besides the voice work. If the movie had more Alison Pill and Lily Rabe, the moments with his daughters would hit better. However, they’re also basically set up as background noise. Perhaps the most underused element of the film is W himself, Sam Rockwell. The performance screams impression, but he’s still good at the character despite bearing almost no physical resemblance to the President. Still, for the Oscar winner to be used so sparingly, and laying the blame of the entire administration at Cheney’s feet, this feels deeply flawed.
What ultimately makes Vice an untrustworthy film from the word go is that McKay really believes he’s smarter than the audience. The mid-credit scene is straight up offensive, and to fault audiences for wanting to watch a movie like The Fast and the Furious despite the fact that McKay made his bones on escapist comedies like Talladega Nights, Anchorman, and Step-Brothers, feels extremely hypocritical. Keep in mind, McKay also did a pass on the Ant-Man script, so we’re not talking about a director who distances himself from popcorn.
At the same time, he’s telling us Dick Cheney was bad. We all know that. There was literally a cartoon where his dad was Darth Vader and he bit the heads off of birds WHILE HE WAS STILL IN OFFICE. It becomes especially clear that McKay loses steam in the last twenty-five minutes of the movie with a recap of the worst offenses of the Bush administration, a shot of his open chest cavity (because get it? He has no heart), and the complete swing and miss on his daughter’s breakdown. The movie really thinks its dunking on the Bush administration, like Jordan over Mutombo. In reality, Vice is closer to being Bill Murray from Rushmore.
I get what McKay is going for. I’m happy he didn’t use kid gloves like Oliver Stone did with W. in 2008. Still, McKay’s lecture comes off as someone screaming into the void than someone genuinely having a conversation. It’s not going to get anyone to our side in a political environment like this one, and if that’s the case, what was the point? McKay is too talented a director to waste his time making mediocre films, and if he ever directs a movie he didn’t write, expect him to seriously shake up Hollywood. Instead, he gets in his own way and really drags down the movie in the process.