** out of ****
(for strong language and some violent images)
Released: December 25, 2018
Runtime: 132 minutes
Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk
Having Vice shoved down your throat makes one long for the subtleties of an Oliver Stone political conspiracy movie.
The gleefully clever, incendiary style that was so fresh and explosive in The Big Short has quickly become a rut for writer/director Adam McKay. Validated by a (worthy) screenplay Oscar win for that satirical takedown of the corruptors behind the 2008 financial collapse, McKay applies the same tools and tricks to target Dick Cheney – the Vice President to George W. Bush and long-time neocon Republican operative – during his rise and shadowy reign.
But with a script of his own that lacks a stronger source material to guide him (such as he had with Michael Lewis’s “Big Short” book), McKay proves to be little more than a mimic of David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook), someone who mistakes style for substance and confuses sick burns for whistleblowing, all while brandishing a giant partisan chip on his shoulder.
When you have nothing but contempt for your subject, all you’re left with is indulgent soapboxing. It’s an ugly look, especially when screeched with such condescending bias, particularly for anyone who fashions themselves a serious filmmaker.
Think of Vice as a narrative feature by polemical documentarian Michael Moore and you start to get the idea of how obnoxious this really is.
Red meat for blue voters, Vice plays like liberal fan fiction about just how evil Dick Cheney truly is, zipping through a Cliffs Notes version of turn-of-the-century politics, presented with extreme prejudice, McKay’s directorial bells and whistles, dialogue that’s jammed with exchanges far too self-aware of historical context, and all packaged in author-intrusion spoon-feeding for Jesse Plemons to narrate.
Get in line, young progressives, your talking points for the history you were too young to remember have been collected for you in one Oscar bait rock-and-roll bundle.
The whole construct of the script is like a two-hour expansion of one of Rachel Maddow’s 30-minute labyrinth schematics, with “revelations” you’ve heard pundits theorize or gripe about on MSNBC a million times before, and in broad sketch level snark more fitting for McKay’s “Funny or Die” comedy site.
Here, Cheney is a man of small intellect and no political convictions, moral compass, or ideological core. He wants power, pure and simple. Along with his wife and daughters, it’s the only thing he loves. Yes, that shortlist also excludes country. This Cheney’s patriotism extends no further than a strategic calculation, if that. He may not be heartless, barely (heart attack fodder is the film’s one hilarious running gag), but he has no soul.
Meanwhile, the Republican Establishment that takes him under its wing is replete with misogynist racist frat boy vulgarians that, through their entitlement, now cloak themselves in suits as they wield control throughout D.C. corridors.
Rank caricatures, McKay can’t decide if these white guys are blundering idiots or devious geniuses, so he flops back and forth between the two (along with swings from being arrogantly short-sighted or connivingly far-sighted) for which ever extreme fits his mocking venom in any given moment.
Through it all, Cheney is the puppet master to W’s Howdy Doody, his co-conspirators assault the Constitution with smug cunning and legal double-speak, while Colin Powell is the lone man of principle albeit a weak patsy to boot.
Just when you think the Veep will have zero empathy and be all sociopath, McKay invests time into showing Cheney’s unwavering, judgment-free devotion for his lesbian daughter Mary, including when he draws lines in the sand with the President himself about how she will not be a topic or target in political campaigns or debates. But given the callous, ruthless portrait that defines the bulk of the film these moments come off as completely disingenuous.
To the extent they resonate with any sincerity it’s due to Christian Bale. He’s far more intent on humanizing Cheney than McKay is, not as an endorsement or defense of Cheney but simply because Bale has actual artistic integrity. Amy Adams also invests some conviction into Lynne Cheney but, as written here, she remains a thinly drawn pre-feminist sellout who’s as driven for power as her husband is, and more savvy.
Sam Rockwell gives Bush 43 a layer or two more than you might expect, to his credit, but Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld (who was Cheney’s mentor and W’s Secretary of Defense during and after 9/11) is basically just Brick Tamland with a brain (which is a very dangerous thing).
Laudable cast efforts aside, everything McKay does here is ham-fisted, not the least of which are his visual metaphors, whether cutting into a premium cut steak while advocating enhanced interrogation techniques or stacking up tea cups like a wobbly jenga tower. Oh, those tea cups, precariously balanced in slow-mo footage, just waiting to come crashing down. What an eye roller.
McKay’s so enamored with his own satirical venting that he can’t see how hollow his most dramatic moments are, capped by Cheney breaking the fourth-wall as he makes a Col. Jessup styled defense of his career. It’s not damning. It’s incredulously pretentious.
Vice doesn’t aspire to historical literacy; it plays to a liberal constituency while debasing itself for political expediency. Dick Cheney never actually laughs maniacally here, as one might expect, but he doesn’t have to; McKay’s loathsome aesthetic does it for him.