Vice (2018)

*. Vice is a movie I won’t spend much time on because my opinions are pretty much in line with what everybody else had to say about it when it came out. In brief it’s a movie by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) that follows the same formula as The Big Short: the news presented as a tricked-out, almost mockumentary comedy sketch.
*. Stunts and gimmicks are the name of the game. End credits run halfway through the movie only to be interrupted with a phone call bringing Dick Cheney out of retirement. A scene is played in faux-Shakespearean language. A waiter offers up a menu of legal and political options. That sort of thing. The whole movie is accompanied by a dead man’s voiceover.
*. Do such flourishes provide some new insight or understanding into George W. Bush’s administration? I don’t think so, and most reviewers were unimpressed as well. I’ll quote just a couple. Christopher Orr: “This is a film whose methods and message are wildly out of sync, one that tries to make you pay attention to an Existential Threat to American Democracy by juggling torches while playing the ukulele.” Dana Stevens: “Vice is so weighed down with narrative embellishments that its many simpler virtues, including a perfectly judged supporting performance from Steve Carell as Cheney’s pitiable yet loathsome mentor Donald Rumsfeld, get lost in the rococo encrustations.”
*. The other part of the movie that achieved critical consensus is the performance of Christian Bale as Cheney. I too was amazed at Bale’s transformation, and how accurately he captured Cheney’s admittedly cartoonish mannerisms. Is it more than an impersonation though? Maybe not a lot more, but you can’t fault Bale for that. It’s not a very well-written part.
*. It’s obviously a political movie but I don’t think it satisfied anybody. Cheney supporters naturally despised it, but critics thought it wasn’t hard enough. I think a lot rides on how you interpret that address to the audience at the end: “I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones could sleep peacefully at night. It has been my honor to be your servant. You chose me. And I did what you asked.” Self-serving bullshit? Sure. But there was a lot of bullshit that piled up during these years. Indeed, Harry Frankfurt’s little essay On Bullshit may be taken as the essential document for W.’s administration. But where there’s so much bullshit, what is the truth?
*. This is where Vice frustrates the most. Cheney is presented as someone hungry for power, but there’s no sense of any values or goals beyond this. In what is perhaps the most notorious scene he asks Donald Rumsfeld (a gameful but miscast Steve Carrell) what they believe in only to be met with laughter. There’s no there there.
*. In other words, it’s a biopic about a grey non-entity. The “quiet man.” A ghost. Someone, we are warned right from the start, who has kept his secrets. I have to think an opportunity was missed here, as there did seem to be something driving Cheney beyond just the dream of being a bureaucratic functionary in an authoritarian state (the grail of the unitary executive). My own sense is that he was driven by anger and fear, and possibly some sense of resentment. But where such deep reservoirs of these feelings came from is, even after watching Vice, anybody’s guess. Was he pushed on by Lady Macbeth (an almost scary Amy Adams)?
*. Possibly. I suppose. But here is where McKay’s glib, distracting presentation leads us off track. It takes us away from any deeper insight, analysis, or even opinion, instead opting for entertainment. These directions needn’t be mutually exclusive, but unfortunately that’s the way they play here. Instead of satire and outrage we’re left with something lighter and less meaningful.
*. A couple of reflections on a pair of movies dealing with nearly exactly the same material and using a similar approach, this movie and Oliver Stone’s W. (2008). In the first place, both movies fail, I think primarily because of the approach taken. Second: How will that approach be adapted for the inevitable movies to be made of the even more Saturday Night Live-skit Trump administration? Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Vice (2018)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’m a little more positive than you on this one; I dodn’t mind SNL sketches becoming movies; why should casual commentaries be restricted to social media? I wish it was possible for low-budget digital films to tackle what’s happening now; they key revelation in Vice is about the birth of Fox News/Fake News and it’s for such details that I think it’s worth watching.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Good points. I did think the approach taken here worked better in The Big Short. I was frustrated it didn’t have a clearer point of view or position to take, but given the subject matter I don’t think that was possible. A dramatic biopic of someone who is still alive is always going to be a dicey proposition. I usually come away from these with more questions than answers (like in Snowden, or The People vs. O.J. Simpson).

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Absolutely agree, but the costs involved in making cinema shouldn’t mean we can’t make films about public figures until they’re dead and can’t sue. A film can offer a better, more involved sense of something than a sketch. Vice has an inconsistent approach which doesn’t help, but it does name names and provoke. More questions than answers is right!

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