Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, and Jesse Plemons
Here’s a fun game to play when you want to depress yourself about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has no clue about what is, and is not, Oscar-worthy: Oscar winners vs. Oscar not-winners.
|Oscar Winner||Oscar Not-Winner|
|Writer of trashy suspense novels and creator of I Dream of Jeannie, Sidney Sheldon||Alfred Hitchcock|
|The director of Dumb and Dumber and Shallow Hal, Peter Farrelly||Norman Jewison|
|The director of Dirty Dancing, Emile Ardolino||Phillip Kaufman|
|Dean Pelson (Jim Rash) from Community||Sidney Lumet|
|The director of Galaxy Quest, Dean Parisot||Hal Ashby|
|Voice of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s, Steven Wright||David Lynch, George Lucas, Michael Man, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, John Boorman, and Paul Thomas Anderson|
What does this game have to do with Vice? The relevance is Adam McKay. You see, the man otherwise known as the director of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers, won an Oscar as co-writer on his last film, The Big Short, putting him on the same Oscar footing as men like Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles, and ahead of all the Oscar Not-Winners above. What a wonderful world, right?
What’s It About?
After his Lady Macbeth-ish wife demands he “Stand up and be somebody,” Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) rises from a lowly Yale University-flunkout to be the most powerful man in America not elected president. In the process, he redefines the limits of executive power and reshapes the vice presidency, at the expense of democracy.
The essential task of any biopic is abridging a person’s life into a digestible couple of hours of entertainment without leaving it feeling like a Spark’s Notes take on events. Amongst the possible modes of attack, then, is to focus on a wholly discreet part of the subject’s life and hope that discreet part says everything desired about the whole, see e.g. Lincoln, which covers the short period of time at the end of the Civil War, or The Social Network, which covers just a few years in the early aughts. Or, you can be a bit non-literal with the contours of a ‘biopic’ and give it the Steve Jobs treatment, where you distill the essence of the person’s life into an unusual narrative and ignore strict factuality in favor of ecstatic truth.
Vice tries to have it both ways, to an extent. It’s skips liberally over great swaths of Cheney’s life in the same way Walk the Line does, so as to get to the greatest hits, but also tries to use the small bits to make larger statements about the man himself. And it does so by flexing the narrative and style. In this way, Vice seems to want to be both styles of biopic, at the same time it wants to be neither, while also charting a third course. That it only partially succeeds at all is often to its own detriment.
No matter the approach, the cruel truth of Vice is it will ultimately play well to the folks who lived through the Cheney years, but have diminishing results for later generations. Think I’m kidding? Ask yourself when was the last time anybody talked about the film Wilson, based on the life of Woodrow Wilson, or any other movie about any other president for that matter. In other words, one’s familiarity with the subject will enhance, or decrease, one’s enjoyment of the film in equal proportion. But even as this is true, it’s also secretly false because so often Vice forgets that it should entertain and enlighten, and instead of focusing on the more interesting, unknown items, it only hits the familiar talking points. For instance, I was intrigued how Cheney got from Wyoming to Yale, and then how, after he flunked out of Yale and was back in Wyoming working for the state, he managed to drag himself out that. And also how Cheney was a congressional intern, without exploring it, leaving so many questions about the man unanswered. Basically, this movie has no time for album-cuts, only the greatest hits.
And if it had spent more time on the deep cuts we’d get more of the nuance of Cheney the man. For instance, to me the movie seems to posit that Cheney had no political philosophy prior to coming to the job and only became a Republican because he was charmed by Donald Rumsfeld. There was a fascinating thought in that the naïve Cheney came to Washington free of political leanings and was instantly seduced to the dark-side by the cult of Donald Rumsfeld, but the movie wanted to do the greatest hits, and nothing but.
Because Cheney is a divisive figure director McKay knows that he’s going to have to bring something narratively/stylistically to the film, to make it palatable. He’s going to have to bring some flair. And, just as he did in The Big Short, McKay livens up the proceedings as much as he can. He has false starts and stops throughout. He allows the film to turn into a Shakespearean dialog at one point. He allows more than one meta moment, and even climaxes the film with probably the most graphic open-heart surgery put into a film since All The Jazz, which itself was fairly graphic in its open-heart surgery. Even so, given my disappointment at the story choices, I’m not sure the narrative style is enough.
As to the performances, Christian Bale’s take on Cheney is a let-down, bordering on cartoonish. Occasionally he gets the Cheney walk down pat – there’s one moment where he’s walking down a bland hallway of some government building, looking ever-so-slightly bowlegged and bullish, that you think you’re seeing the real Dick Cheney in action. Or, at least you’re seeing the way I imagine Dick Cheney walks. But the voice and the facial mannerisms Bale employs are wrong, and one step short of moustache-twirly. If the movie was meant to be a heightened, arch-comedy – and part of me thinks it was sort-of conceived that way – then a broadly acted villain turn would be right for it. But as the movie tends to play out like a tragedy, where the victim is the United States and democracy, then this particular reading of Dick Cheney lands with a thud.
Amy Adams is okay – she’s not terrible, but she’s not great. Mostly, she seems to be revisiting her work from The Master, to diminishing returns. Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush is good, and really captures what the man has in personal magnetism, and also what he lacks in command of the details. The disappointment in the role is it’s so small. Steve Carrell really stands out for a fantastic performance as Donald Rumsfeld, relishing the chance to double-down on the unrepentant asshole vibe we knew he was always capable of bringing to a project like The Office, but which was tamped down, for obvious reasons. The one cast member who truly clangs is Tyler Perry as Colin Powell – it’s just too disorienting to see the man better known as Madea trying, and failing, to play the gravitas of one of the seminal American figures of the last 30 years.
Is This Just A Hit Job?
The danger of making a movie about a well-known/much-loathed political figure is the temptation to eschew balance, turning it into a screed/hit-job. And in a sense, this movie is a hit-job, but if it is, it uses the subjects actions, unvarnished, against himself. Moreover, the film knows quite well that it will be seen as a hit-job, no matter what it does, and so attacks that notion head-on in a meta way: late in the film there is a focus group meeting that turns itself around on the film, with both sides to the argument laying out its case for how it is un/biased. Finally, just to make sure it’s fair as possible to Cheney the man, the film allows Bale-as-Cheney to directly address the camera and justify everything. His point? Everything I did was to make you safer. And while that justification seems a bit of a sanctimonious put on, it at least gives Cheney the chance to say, “Yes, I did all that, but I did it because I thought it was best for you.”
Better Than Best?
The Best Picture winner for 2018 was Green Book, a movie some critics called a travesty and the worst film to win Best Picture since Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. I call those same people crazy because I found Green Book movie enjoyable, but simplistic. Yes, Green Book’s triumph of The Favourite is on par with Crash beating Brokeback Mountain, but in terms of ‘worst since…’ it’s more like the worst since Birdman in 2014.
Anyway, the question here isn’t about ‘worst since…’, it’s about whether Vice is better than the best picture winner 2018. On the whole, the answer is mixed. While I found Vice to be a better film, and more trenchant about the political targets it takes on, with better acting top to bottom, and a more reasoned approach to its subject – relatively speaking – the truth is Vice is a movie that makes you feel bad. It makes the case that people like Dick Cheney were actively making the world worse by being in it, which we as voters, and lazy fuckers, abetted, and draws a line directly from Dick Cheney to the election of Donald Trump and the chaos in the country. Hardly a feel-good movie.
On the other hand, simple as it is, Green Book is meant to be a crowd pleaser and at the end left me in a happier place than when I started. It might be manipulative, but Green Book is also ingratiating. Which means while I think Vice is the hands-down better film, if given a choice on which to watch next, I might pick Green Book.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Best Original Screenplay, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
 Best Picture and Screenplay, Green Book (2018)
 Best Documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1983)
 Best Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants (2011)
 Honorary Oscars do not count as Oscar wins.
 Best Live Action Short, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (1988)
 Best Live Action Short, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (1988)
 Both of which have their value.
 Best Director, The Departed (2006)
 Best Visual Effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
 Best Screenplay, Citizen Kane (1941)
 And, let’s be honest: what movie isn’t manipulative?