Adam McKay’s career trajectory has proved to be one of the weirdest a contemporary comic director has forged. Having launched his career into the spotlight with his inaugural effort Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, he proceeded to attempt making lightning strike twice with four subsequent team-ups with Will Ferrell that all failed to fully recapture the success of that first film: Talledega Knights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2.
Then out of nowhere in 2015 he released The Big Short. The film was an unexpected hit with broad critical consensus that it had somehow managed to make an entertaining comedic satire about the 2008 financial crash. Out of nowhere, McKay had become a serious director.
A Biopic About Vice President Dick Cheney
His followup to The Big Short was released Christmas Day. Vice is not an unexpected film for him to make. McKay is very publicly outspoken as a progressive activist who has endorsed multiple Democratic candidates including Bernie Sanders and John Kerry.
With Vice, McKay presents us with an attempt at broad satire designed to dig to the core of who he thinks the former Vice President of the United States actually is. In practice, it is little more than a gnat of a film. It exists to annoy conservatives and churn progressive disdain for the Bush administration by marching out a series of tired early 2000s liberal grievances as loudly and bombastically as humanly possible.
For the most part, I’m not inclined to be supportive of the former Vice President (granted I was only 13 when he left office so my context for some of these events is hazy), but if you were to take the film at face value, you would assume that the man was the grandest, most nefarious puppetmaster in the history of contemporary American politics.
There is no central concept at the core of Vice beyond blanket cynicism. The only insight the film shares in regards to understanding the public figure that is Dick Cheney is that he’s a power-mad tyrant who exists to make himself, his friends, and his movement stronger for its own sake.
At one point the film stops mid-sentence, and has Dick and Lynne Cheney quote lines from Richard III. In quoting Shakespeare’s most overtly evil and power hungry character whose quest for power is all consuming and destructive, McKay’s cynical game is laid bare.
The only life we get to see in this character comes from Christian Bale’s widely regarded central performance as the titular character. He finds a lot of character ticks and anachronisms in his performance that really give the sense that he’s put a lot of thought into Dick Cheney’s personality. Unfortunately, this excellent performance is undermined by the script’s seething contempt, and none of the other actors really deliver beyond him. Steve Carrel as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush are essentially playing SNL versions of their characters.
The Cynicism of Vice
Vice doesn’t merely exist as a means of diminishing the former Vice President; it exists as a broader critique of the entire conservative movement. The film uses its central character’s connections to everything from Fox News to DC lobbying to indict the entire conservative establishment.
There is a critical line in the film in which a young Dick Cheney asks a younger Donald Rumsfeld in the 1970s what it is that conservatives actually believe in. Rumsfeld proceeds to laugh uproariously at the notion that he believes in anything. Here lies the central critique at the core of the film. Vice propagates the notion that the entire conservative establishment is a cabal of rudderless liars who sell mistruths to the American people to trick them into voting conservatives into power.
The movie name-drops conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation and conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh, while strategically dropping in brief clips of prominent conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan, Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and Jeff Sessions to draw a spirograph of sorts in which every bad thing conservatism has ever done can be connected to the entirety of conservatism. Through this lens, the movie presents the idea that there is no sincerity to be found anywhere on the right.
I’d be inclined to agree that politics is far more cynical and cutthroat behind the scenes than many people realize. What’s cynical is that this movie seems to imply that the left’s side of the aisle is the opposite. Whenever we see progressive politicians they’re proposing bills for environmental change and civil rights. It’s one thing to say that politics is corrupting. It’s another thing entirely to say that politics is only corrupting your enemies.
Response to the Film
The right has responded with widespread condemnation of the film, as conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Kyle Smith have written about the film and lambasted it at National Review Online. The movie has brought in a low $4.8 million at its premiere but is expected to improve somewhat as its lead performance builds Oscar buzz.
On the progressive film circuit, the film is essentially simmering at low burner right now. Beyond the shrinking crowd of progressives still fuming about the Bush administration more than a decade later, widespread leftwing interest in the film is lacking.
One could easily look at the film as a moderate failure and brush it off. That doesn’t matter though. Annapurna likely wasn’t expecting a blockbuster return for a Dick Cheney film being released on Christmas.
Like All The President’s Men, The Post, Blackkklansman, Truth, and Trumbo before it, the film exists to create the definitive version of the events that will stick in people’s minds. It doesn’t matter if the events are exaggerated, technically true, or outright forged. Vice exists to creates scenes that put the thought in your head that Cheney is nothing but cynical and corrupt and that, by extension, the entirety of the American right is unforgivably flawed, even dangerous.
In that sense, the film’s title Vice seems all the more appropriate. By conflating the title of Vice President with the concept of vice it draws the notation that Cheney’s reign was merely a writhing pit of power, lust, and abuse.
The Propagandistic Power of Cinema
The way the film cuts images together in obvious ways is clearly intended as a method of building the audience’s reactions in such a way that you can’t help but associate Cheney with horrible things. For example, it shows images of people being tortured, dying brutal deaths, and suffering and then cuts that with footage of Dick Cheney fishing in a peaceful stream. The result creates the impression that Cheney is selfish and doesn’t care about the consequences of his decisions.
In scene-to-scene editing, the movie is constantly pulling such pretentious visual references out on cue. In another example, the film cuts from Rumsfield to footage of a butterfly knife to impress the idea that he’s a skilled and cruel politician.
Vice is just as cynical and mean-spirited as the version of Cheney that McKay likely conjures in his head. A better version of this film would’ve been charitable enough to be humble and admit the sins of the left, too, or concede some level of humanity within its titular character.
Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors who has ever lived, and the gangsters and criminal scum he conjures in his films all have some level of humanity in between the moments of horror they perpetrate. By contrast, Vice is little more than a propagandistic gnat, easily squashed and disregarded by everyone . . . including those on McKay’s own side.
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