(SPOILERS) It doesn’t bode well when you have to preface your movie with an admission that you know fuck all about your subject matter, even going as far as using the f-word jokingly as a means of saying you’re hip to this problem but you’re going to struggle on manfully anyway, as you’re telling an important piece of political history in a populist and accessible manner. You think. Underlined by repeating it at the end (“If you leave knowing Cheney no better than when you arrived, you’ll know how we feel”), which only emphasises that being self-aware regarding your abject failure doesn’t make it any less of a failure, even if you allows one to be smugly pleased over job badly done. So no, Vice just isn’t very good.
Vice’s attitude, as “explained” in an end-credits scene, appears to be that, if you have liberal or less than hard-line Republican values, you’ll automatically be on board with Adam McKay’s brand of wishy-washy, ineffectually “satirical” (there isn’t much of that) dramatisation of biography notes that could be more briefly scanned on Dick Cheney’s Wiki page.
Not knowing much about a significant and morally bankrupt political figure (is there any other kind?) oughtn’t to be a barrier to probing them, but you need to be willing to take some risks if you do. Vice is about as risky as any other linear biopic you’ve seen in the last couple of decades, but it thinks it’s above that because McKay scored with The Big Short (which succeeded in almost every respect that Vice fails).
So yeah, if you don’t have any insight into your pro/antagonist, it’s probably best to take a view, or you end up inscribing exactly the lack of definition you complain about to begin with. It doesn’t help that your leading man, stuffed full of pies and layered with prosthetics (apparently, Bale didn’t actually undergo open heart surgery, the wuss) is so diligent in his focus on the performance trees, he misses the woods of motivation and ends up more Ned Beatty than political mastermind and power behind the W throne.
In this regard, the best McKay can come up with is that Cheney, in his Yale-dropout, pugilistic mess of formative years, has actually been “styled” by a strong woman pushing him forward, Amy Adams’ Lyne Vincent Cheney. Hence her crude early speech (“That’s just the way the world is for a girl. I need you”) suggesting that, in his own backward way, McKay thinks this is an empowering, progressive (feminist?) text; the morals involved scarcely matter as long as you can point to some flag of positivity behind this profound culpability. At least there’s a vague edge later, as Cheney stands up for his lesbian daughter and refuses to campaign against gay marriage/rights. And then suggests his other daughter, running for a seat, opposes the same rights. Which means we have a presentation of the man as something of a model husband and parent (he’s the best father he can be to both his ideologically opposed daughters, quite a feat), but the rest remains inscrutable and ultimately as tepid in tone as Oliver Stone’s similarly (mis)conceived W.
Naturally, this is a dyed-in-the-wool Hollywood production; if Stone toes the party line for official versions of events, McKay’s hardly going to break ranks. So you’ll get nary a Truther whiff from Vice (But Dick Cheney saw something else that no one did; “He saw an opportunity” is the official 9/11 verdict). And you won’t come in sniffing distance of Bohemian Grove. Hell, you’ll even be confused as to why he keeps having heart attacks, since you have to go to Wiki to learn he was a three-packs-a-day man (he’s seen smoking a few times, but then, so is Lyn). As close as we get is the “acceptable” conspiracy of 2000 election fraud. McKay’s idea of heavy hitting seems to be having Jesse Plemons’ narrator turn out to be Cheney’s heart donor, which is about as irrelevant as it gets but is positioned as some kind of trump card (you see how he feeds off the innocent and thrives?) That narration is particularly irksome, as it attempts to make a virtue out of sounding knowing about knowing nothing.
McKay wants to focus on Cheney once has taken on the title role, which is understandable, but this means many of his activities are reduced to one-sentence-in-passing footnotes. There’s little of consequence about Haliburton, the shooting incident is about twenty seconds, and there’s a The Big Short approach to quick-glance takes on death taxes and climate change policies that concisely give the lowdown on the makers’ view of their recharacterisation. The Big Short managed to deliver indigestible and complex material in a relevant, amusing and instructive manner. Vice does none of that. You certainly aren’t going to come away with any insights, knowing something you didn’t know before or having a new perspective on any of the events Cheney masterminded. McKay seems to have set out his store with “Dick’s kinda bad. But he’s still vaguely human, right?” Which is exactly the movie Vice didn’t need to be. It makes it about as purposeful as J Edgar.
There aresome good moves here. Steve Carrell is a hit as Donald Rumsfeld (“Don’t worry, I’m like bed bugs. They’ll have to burn the mattress to get rid of me”; “You’re a little piece of shit” he tells Cheney when he’s finally forced out, and when Dick says he’s sorry, responds “Well, you know how I know you’re not? I wouldn’t be”). And with Sam Rockwell’s Dubya, a glimpse of the more irreverent and risky version of Vice (on this evidence, Rockwell should have led Stone’s film; it might have saved it from its forgettably sleepy fate). But Vice is as essential as 99 percent of other political pictures of the last twenty years (be they directly political or tackling relevant current subjects, usually the War on Terror), coasting on the idea that sitting on the right (as in, correct) side of the political spectrum is enough. And 99 percent of the time, no one wants to see them.
Vice’s eight Oscar nominations garnered just the one win, and I’m not entirely surprised. Good as Rockwell is, there’s just not enough of him, while Bale’s performance is probably the most technically impressive of the nominees, but that’s only half the battle, if you’re failing to convey anything about the man you’re playing. Original Screenplay, well it was a weak year. Hank Corwin’s editing here is nothing like the achievement of The Big Short, and while the picture plays with time frame a little, it’s not enough to make this feel other than standard fare (like the winner, funnily enough). Yeah, the makeup’s good, I’ll grant you. Wiki characterised Vice as a “biographical comedy-drama”, but it’s not very funny, and it’s too diluted to be dramatic. Like the other overtly political nominee of the year (BlacKkKlansman) it assumes its viewpoint is enough. Which, I suppose, it is. But only enough to get nominated.
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