If you’ve ever enjoyed the Fast and Furious movies, reality television and have ever suffered a tendency to quote catchy slogans from adverts for humour – you know which one I’m talking about – then you’re Part of the Problem. You should, instead, put your time toward a mission of unflinching political observance and never, ever cease in your mission to promote the latest flavour of liberal activism offered by Hollywood.
That’s at least according to Vice, the latest film from writer-director Adam McKay, who at the same time as Dick Cheney’s golden ascent after 9/11 became one of comedy’s household names.
Rightly so, too. NASCAR flick Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and 2015’s Oscar-winning The Big Short were chronicles of a simpler time reaching a turbulent end. Vice is McKay’s most explicit attempt to grapple with a political and cultural era he has previously explored with care, heart and, above all, humour. Unfortunately, Vice lacks all three.
Christian Bale is Cheney, the Nebraska-born Yale dropout-slash-Washington Insider who, we are told not shown, was at the heart of American politics in the ugly years following the attacks on September 11. Though Bale’s performance has been generally well-received, the under-explored caricature he brings to life never carries weight beyond the merely physical. When as a young intern in the 70s, Cheney asks DC high-flyer Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) what the Republicans’ “beliefs” are, ‘Rummy’ laughs and shuts the door in his face. The Republicans, of course, don’t have any beliefs.
Oh, but they do. Neoconservatism, the pernicious ideology that drove the Bush administration, is never actually explored – or even mentioned. In another scene, the (at this point future) Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia tells Cheney with glee that the White House can, in legal terms, do what it likes. Scalia’s ecstatic dogma might be entertaining to those who think conservatives are like Bond villains, but the reality is more nuanced – and more dangerous. Scalia and Cheney and Rumsfeld succeeded in Washington precisely because they were able to seem unlike Bond’s unhinged foes – as calm, rational voices fighting American chaos. Nowadays we’d call them “the adults in the room”. Other parallels to the whirlwinds of today are remarkable – and spectacularly missed.
McKay can’t decide whether his villains – virtually every character, in another flaw – are Doctor Evil or Doctor Doolittle. Even more dispiriting is his portrayal of Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), Dick’s forceful wife, in a one-tone turn that leans dangerously on a dollar-store Lady Macbeth. Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, too, proved a missed opportunity to capitalise on an Oscar-winning actor and an abnormal likeness. Bush Junior is a crass oversimplification of a deeply flawed yet uniquely personable President. That the Bush-Cheney ticket was again a success in 2004, even as the failures of the Iraq War became clear, is handily omitted by a film that doesn’t have time for inconvenient truths.
There’s a lot more wrong with this film, but a full exploration of its flaws lies beyond the scope of a single review. Highlights in that pitiful genre, however, include Jesse Plemons as one of recent cinema’s most obnoxious and unnecessary narrators, and the simple fact that the Dick Cheney story has, despite McKay’s insistence, been the subject of an immense literature. Vice doesn’t tread new ground. Its attempt to explore the truth behind a fascinating and evil human being is so weak that the real-life Cheney might feel he didn’t get a fair hearing.
In October 2008, as the sun set on the Bush era, Oliver Stone’s W. (starring an excellent Josh Brolin as Bush 43) seemed to grasp the administration and its catalogue of failings more confidently than most political dramas, and certainly better than any movie set inside the Beltway since. In Vice, Stone’s confidence is swapped for McKay’s hubris. All that’s left is a film more preachy and single-minded than its subjects ever were.
Though that could be with the exception of Dick Cheney. We don’t learn very much about him.