Many directors seek to create films of great beauty, but Adam McKay goes in the opposite direction in Vice, his sort-of biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney. The appearance of Cheney, as portrayed by Christian Bale under what appears to be approximately half a ton of latex, is exhibit A testifying to the director’s approach (the real Cheney is no beauty, but still), and the whole film is characterized by a deliberate refusal of the usual prettifying directorial choices in favor of making everything petty, grotesque, and mean. Above all, it presents a parade of mediocre white men in positions of great power, and as such is perhaps the truest portrait of the current state of American politics yet to hit the big screen. McKay’s visual approch is consistent with the film’s perspective on its subject, and thus there are no two sides to his interpretation of Cheney—and as McKay wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film, you can assume that what you see on the screen is pretty much what he intended to be there.
I’m totally on team McKay as far as his view on American politics goes, but not so much when it comes to his cinematic style. Contrary to the critical consensus, I was not particularly impressed with The Big Short, which seemed to me to be a shallow person’s idea of what it means to make a smart film. Vice is more of the same but dialed up to eleventy stupid, resulting in a fatiguing viewing experience that offers far more smirks than insight. You’ll need a high tolerance for McKay’s stylistic quirks, including his fondness for presenting key terms (“unitary executive theory”) in a way that guarantees that you won’t remember the definition, but will remember the visual (remember Selena Gomez in a bubble bath from The Big Short? What term was she defining?) to make it through this film.
Still, there are great moments in Vice that might not have emerged as clearly in a more conventional film. My favorite comes courtesy of Amy Adams in the role of Lynn Cheney. Early in the film she serves up some old-fashioned truth-telling to her husband after fetching him from the drunk tank for not the first time, warning him that he needs to muster up “the courage to become someone” or she will be out of there. She doesn’t leave it at that, however, but also states explicitly what every woman who lived through that era knows implicitly—she will never have the opportunities that he does, because “that’s just the way the world is for a girl,” and she has no time for someone who throws away the advantages conferred by being born white and male. Personally, I’m not a fan of what Cheney made of himself, but that doesn’t make the sentiment spoken by Adams’ character any less true.
Such quiet moments aside, Vice lays its satire on with a trowel, although perhaps that’s no more than the subject deserves. The actors shine throughout, with Jesse Plemons serving brilliantly as the uncredited narrator and Adams and Bale both delivering strong performance. Vice also features a lot of good performances in bit parts by a parade of white male actors whose characters are often introduced by chyrons and/or narration, lest you fail to recognize who they are meant to portray. These include Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby. | Sarah Boslaugh