Director Adam Mckay’s burning hatred for former Vice President Dick Cheney is well deserved. No, even more than that it’s necessary. Painfully relevant to this very day, the atrocities committed by Cheney during the Bush administration and throughout his career are not deserving of an impartial narrator. They are not deserving of a “both sides” take that bleeds civility into the uncomfortable reality of the destruction of our country, an entire religion, and millions of lives abroad. And it is easy, with the current state of our country, to forget all that. When faced directly with the comical idiocracy of Trump, the Bush administration seems rather subdued, so naturally, approval ratings of Bush and his cronies have risen in recent years. After all, the explosions of Trump’s tantrums over twitter are more visible than the explosions of missiles thousands of miles away. So it is to McKay’s credit that Vice, which he wrote and directed, does not humanize Cheney or normalize the actions of the Republican party that has put greed and the pursuit of power over civil duty. Because Donald Trump did not happen in a vacuum, and while Cheney’s monotone drudgery, Bush’s southern frat-boy charm, and even Paul Ryan’s effervescent goodery don’t reflect the bombastic white-nationalism of The Donald, they sure as hell caused it.
And in my opinion, there are few filmmakers better suited for the task of telling the comedically horrifying life of Dick Cheney better than Adam McKay. The director of the phenomenal The Big Short, McKay, a veteran comedic filmmaker previously known for his more low-brow work with Will Ferrel, has of late shown an unparalleled ability to combine gut-busting humor with gut-wrenching political commentary. And again in Vice, although to a lesser extent than with The Big Short, through snappy dialogue, bait-and-switch trickery, and a gag a minute approach, McKay is able to make the horror unfolding on screen entertaining without having it lose its broiling infliction. Adam McKay’s fury towards Cheney and the Republican party is unmistakable, and as long as you, unlike Cheney, have a working, beating heart, you will feel it too.
But pure anger, as in all other things, is not enough here. To be clear having such strong emotions about the subject at hand is not the problem; the same unabashed disdain McKay showed in The Big Short towards the “villains” is similarly present and effective in Vice. Where the two movies differ, and where Vice so badly fails though, is in the story itself. Whereas in The Big Short McKay could use the story and analysis already present in author Michael Lewis’s book of the same name (Lewis is the masterful writer behind other widely famous non-fiction books like Moneyball and The Blind Side). Without that basic skeletal structure on which McKay could apply his signature flair, Vice is undercut by an extremely un-disciplined and poorly structured script that thrashes wildly at Cheney and the targets around him, while neglecting to dig much deeper than an opinion article one might have found in Vox.
And that’s a shame because even more so than the specifics of Cheney’s evil deeds, what matters most to us today is the how and the why that puts Cheney’s place in the world in context. A drunken hick slob from the backwaters of Wyoming when we meet Cheney (Christian Bale), McKay is far too comfortable sitting back with the audience and snickering at the Machiavellian sensibilities of Cheney and his wife as a snidely written Wikipedia summary detailing Cheney’s improbable rise to power whizzes by us. And boy does it seem improbable. A Yale drop-out with multiple DUI’s, Cheney, who admits to not being particularly bright, is somehow able to wrangle up an internship as a congressional aide for the true-talking asshat Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell). And from then until Clinton’s victory over the first Bush, it’s relatively easy sailing for Cheney as he racks up positions like Chief of Staff (the youngest ever) and Secretary of Defense. And then, never a very popular public figure, Cheney seems to return to the dirt from once he came (the movie has a fantastic gag about all this here).
This meteoric rise to power was, of course, more than just improbable. Yet Vice only sporadically pokes at the sickly secrets of negligence and privilege that conspired to push a mean old white man so far. Similarly Vice is unable to hone in on just what is making its subject tick. The strongest (and probably most correct) inference by the film is Cheney’s unquenchable thirst for power. Yet this is never shown to be a particularly conclusive point, as the notoriously private Cheney remains largely evasive from the film’s critical gaze. In his stead, it’s actually Cheney’s ambitious wife Lynne (played with fierce bravado by Amy Adams) that we get the clearest depiction of. Even in a weekly developed role, for his part, Christian Bale’s transformation into the heavily obese Cheney (which is a sight to behold) is all its hyped up to be. A guttural drawl and eyes void of any hint of a soul, Bale is the spitting image of ol’ Dick and he’s well on his way towards his 2nd Oscar victory.
The second half of the film depicts Cheney’s reign of terror in the White House and while it may be a rehash if you already lived it, it is nevertheless guaranteed to make your blood boil. It’s far more enthralling half, as freed from the need to understand Cheney’s place in the world McKay can light the movie aflame with the objective atrocity of Cheney’s administration. But in the end, emotional catharcism these days (the kind elicited by “infallibly” terrible Republican actions) is so easy to come by that it makes what Vice offers frustratingly common in comparison. A comedic biopic of the life of Dick Cheney is the perfect opportunity to expose the societal and governmental failures that lead to the rapidly crumbling marble columns of the Old World Order. But Vice is by and large unable to do that. I’m not saying the film completely neglects to try: there are nods to the reactionary atmosphere of the 80s and early 90s and the deceitful messaging of the Republican party that belied their extreme messages into the mainstream. But ultimately, as much as Adam McKay and Vice despise Cheney, they are impervious to the far more destructive forces lurking just below the surface.