DIR/WRI: Adam McKay • PRO: Megan Ellison, Will Ferrell, Dede Gardner, Jason George, Jeremy Kleiner, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick, Brad Pitt • DOP: Greig Fraser • ED: Hank Corwin • DES: Patrice Vermette • MUSIC: Nicholas Britell • CAST: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
An earlier teaser for Dick Cheney biopic/satire Vice featured the tagline ‘Some vices are more dangerous than others.” Writer-director Adam McKay’s is that he prefers flashy gimmicks over telling a story that works dramatically. That’s truly dangerous in that it sinks his movie.
Jumping between timelines, the film charts the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), from Yale drop-out and heavy drinker to becoming Vice President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), during 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
After making a name directing Will Ferrell joints, McKay’s previous film, The Big Short employed stylistic flourishes and absurd comedy in moments to jazz up its depiction of what led to the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. The joke was that one needed fourth-wall-breaking cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to explain concepts like subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations because otherwise people would be confused or disinterested. It was fast, funny and ultimately made a salient point about how people today consume information.
Vice doubles down on these techniques without finding a reason to use them. There’s zinger-filled narration from Jesse Plemons (Game Night, Fargo), needless jumping backward and forward in time, endless stock footage inserts, shots created to look like stock-footage inserts, metatextual gags – all of which combined leave the film with no dramatic scene.
Admittedly, some of the jokes are funny on an Airplane parody level, satirising the conventions of biopics. Mid-way through the film, before being recruited to be Bush Jr’s VP, Cheney is shown in the woods with his family vowing to never return to politics. In another movie, the scene would be its closing moment and just as this realisation dawns, fake credits roll – before rewinding back to what really happened. Meanwhile, another laugh-inducing moment imagines Cheney as a Shakespearean anti-hero as he makes a key decision. He and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams wasted in what should have been a third winning collab with Bale) suddenly begin spouting lines from Richard III in a surreal sequence.
However, by overdoing his shtick, McKay constantly clips any sense of engagement in his characters by continually satirizing them. What is the point in making Bale go method and gain so much weight to authentically play Cheney, only to stymy his performance by filling every potentially engaging scene he has with a million cuts to everything from fish swimming to dices being thrown. It’s on a level with Peter Berg’s equally shoddily directed Mile 22.
One wonders whether McKay went so overboard because he realised his script – the first he wrote without a co-writer – is a mess. There’s the germ of a really interesting concept there – that Cheney replaced his vice for drinking with one for power, ignited by working for controversial former US Secretary of Defence and congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell, the only actor given a chance to sink his teeth into his slimy character) during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Cheney and Rumsfeld have no political belief, all they thirst after is power for the sake of power. This is what led Cheney to expand the powers of the Presidency so they could launch a war against Iraq to seize their oil without the US Congress’ consent. It’s his drive which has led to the countless deaths both of US troops and citizens of the countries they invaded.
However, someone like Aaron Sorkin or Mark Boal or even satirists like Armando Iannucci, Sam Bain or McKay’s collaborator on HBO series Succession, Jesse Armstrong, could perhaps trace that through line clearly. They could depict it in a way which emphasises the tragedy and makes Cheney interesting and fascinating if not empathetic, so that audiences are invested. The problem with Vice is that McKay clearly hates Cheney and all he stands for – implementing tax cuts for the rich, downplaying global warming, giving corporations the freedom to act as they please. Bale’s Cheney is not a character but a humourless, villainous caricature with McKay too busy pointing out all the questionable things he did in his political life to make him in anyway feel like an actual person. It doesn’t help that in Vice’s final stretch the writer-director practically lists off events like a Wikipedia entry with the Valerie Plame scandal and Cheney’s accidental shooting of a man while hunting being brought up and then tossed aside in just one line.
This reviewer has a feeling the film my have been tampered with by the studio, after realising McKay’s original take was not working. That is the only way to excuse Jesse Plemons’ narration that is so distracting for the entire film as one has no idea who he is or why he has all this information about Cheney’s life. The moment one realises his connection to the politician, takes the cake in ridiculousness, coming across as hilariously wrongheaded.
Still, McKay deserves credit for trying. Vice feels angry, flirting with timeliness. It shows that Trump is not the only thing wrong with US politics and that it has been populated with power hungry vipers since the beginning. That said, the comedy-drama is still proof that just because one feels passionately about a subject, does not automatically make it satisfying.
I just saw this brilliant movie, and it reminded me how much I despise Cheney, Bush, Blair and all the other overprivileged armchair generals who sent the sons of the great unwashed off to die for a pack of lies and leave the middle east in flames. Buck Millican sums up my feelings in Alun Wessler’s monumental tome ‘Odysseus’:
“Letter from Sambuca Millican to the South China Morning Post of 8 July 2016, unpublished through lack of interest, so later posted on Facebook to at least reach several score friends and acquaintances:
I am absolutely sick of people in the media being taken in by Tony Blair’s crocodile tears and Machiavellian word games, and then encouraging us to take a balanced and moderate view of his role in the Iraq war. If you are not clinically insane or a certified moron, you cannot deny the basic facts below, which are supported by the Chilcot report.
For months, Tony Blair followed George Bush around like a devoted underling (I don’t want to use expressions like ‘poodle’ or ‘clingy girlfriend’ because I am striving to be objective and factual), averring that he would be “with you whatever”, presumably no matter how wicked or moronic the Americans’ plans were. At the same time, Blair led the British people to believe that he was seeking a multilateral compromise to avoid military action.
Blair and his cronies compiled a heavily biased dossier of unreliable intelligence on the imminent threat posed to the west by Saddam Hussein, and then presented it to parliament as a powerful or near-irresistible casus belli. This can only be a case of either criminal dishonesty or criminal negligence. There is no third explanation.
Then Blair sent the children of the lower orders off to war and into lethal danger, without the appropriate planning or equipment to keep them safe. At the same time, he and George Bush had come up with no proper or even sensible ideas on how they were going to administer a postinvasion Iraq to prevent it from turning into a toxic maelstrom of deadly mayhem. As a result, 179 British service personnel and at least 100,000 Iraqis died in the aftermath.
I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know which legal books I should consult to find the definition of a war crime. However, just a cursory one-minute look on the Internet produces this quote from Wikipedia: ‘A war of aggression, sometimes also a war of conquest, is a military conflict waged without the justification of self-defense,…..Since the Korean War of the early 1950s, waging such a war of aggression is a crime under the customary international law.’ The Chilcot report states that ‘Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by the Iraqi regime’. Blair knew the the UK was not under threat, and so he was clearly not acting in self defence.
Maybe there are some legal experts out there reading this comment. Would any of you like to advise me how I could bring a private prosecution against Blair for war crimes, or perhaps join me in taking such action?”