‘Vice,’ the Dick Cheney Biopic, Might Be the Worst Movie of the Year
Filmmaker Adam McKay’s political satire, starring an unrecognizable Christian Bale, is getting major awards buzz. But is it any good? Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon break it down.
Kevin: One of the last major award-season players to hit theaters this year is Adam McKay’s black-comedy retrospective of the Bush and Cheney years, Vice, which stars Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, and Hollywood’s biggest prosthetics budget. You, dear readers, might be under the impression that this film is good, what with its leading six Golden Globe nominations, frequent mentioning of Bale and Adams as respective Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress frontrunners, and its release amid a political climate that is ripe for a ruthless and pointed examination of that time in history.
Marlow: Especially given the recent deluge of woefully misguided Bush nostalgia, funeral-candy-passing and all. Ugh.
Kevin: What Vice is instead, however, is a baffling tonal hodgepodge that misuses a laundry list of cutesy narrative devices McKay had previously deployed first in The Big Short, at best marginally humanizes Dick Cheney and at worst lionizes him, assaults you with a relentless retrospective of the administration’s most heinous acts but with no added insight, and seems confused about what kind of point it wants to make, in fact making none at all. The film spans Cheney’s life from 1963 through the 9/11 years and into the recent past, framing it with hokey omniscient narration that, in addition to being the impetus for the film’s wildest twist, turns Cheney’s story into a zany episode of Arrested Development. How I Met Your Despot. Young War Criminal. Marlow, this movie infuriated me!
Marlow: You are not alone. Sitting through Vice is the most exhausting and frustrating viewing experience of the year. Many of the narrative flourishes that proved sort of clever in The Big Short, from Margot Robbie riffing on subprime mortgages in a bubble bath to Selena Gomez unpacking collateralized debt obligations in a casino, really don’t work here. The most glaring example is a scene in a fancy beltway restaurant wherein Alfred Molina, playing a waiter, serves a tableful of shady political operatives a menu with options like “enhanced interrogation.” It’s Borowitz-level satire—embarrassing and awfully reductive. Or what about the scene where a character describes the political climate as being as precarious as dozens of porcelain teacups towered high…only to have the action then cut to a literal tower of porcelain teacups swaying to and fro. It’s an all-out assault on the senses, and not in a good way. But let’s talk about the characterization of Cheney, because I agree that it’s far from a scathing portrait of the disgraced politician.
Kevin: Calling whatever was going on with this film a “characterization” is a leap, but we’ll make our best go at it. Early on in the movie, the narrator—I can’t wait until we get to talk more about this goddamn narrator—explains that no one, not those around Cheney and certainly not us normal citizens, noticed Cheney’s machinations or rise to power/terror because he spoke in a charisma-less monotone and lacked the gregarious presence most politicians possessed. “He did it like a ghost,” the narrator says. The film never really shades that idea, following him through the decades on a single-track crusade for more control and a savvy, dastardly knack for seizing every opportunity. Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney and his relationship with his gay daughter, played by Alison Pill, are used as props to remind us that he was a real person. But it’s such a shallow exploration, that latter issue especially, that it’s hardly effective.
Marlow: Despite the best efforts of Bale, who does a fine job nailing Cheney’s mannerisms, voice, posture, gut, iciness, you name it, it’s a rather surface-level exploration of the Machiavellian politician—until the end of the film, where McKay addresses his relationship with his gay daughter. And even then, it presents a sympathetic portrait of Cheney, one that points the blame for his internal struggle more at the ugliness of politics writ large than the actual man who threw his own daughter under the bus for political points; plus, it feels tacked on, as if McKay realized he’d gone too easy on Mr. Torture up to that point (which, yes) and felt the need to offer his audience a coup de grace. But more generally, Cheney’s is framed as an underdog story. It opens on him as a 21-year-old fuckup getting busted for a DWI (after he’s bullied into a bar fight); paints his decision to go Republican as a random choice after he’s tickled by Rumsfeld’s sense of humor; and depicts him as a curmudgeonly Washington outsider who rose up the ranks due to his moxie. He’s a fairly likable shlub-antihero here whose smirk is more endearing than menacing, which is deeply troubling.
Kevin: The performances in this movie are all over this place. Bale, in my opinion, is great in a movie that lets him down completely. His transformation is as astonishing as it was talked up to be. Amy Adams gives the best performance in the film as Lynne Cheney, making it all the more infuriating when she essentially disappears for the last hour. Steve Carell seems to think he’s acting in a cartoon as Donald Rumsfeld, while Sam Rockwell’s fun and charming take on George W. Bush is a blast—you know, if anyone was really eager to see Dubya completely absolved of his complicity because he was, as Vice portrays, nothing more than the clueless hoot.
Marlow: With you on the Carell and Adams performances. And this depiction of W. as a good-ol’-boy airhead, a patsy puppeteered by Cheney, will only further absolve him of responsibility for his disastrous presidency—just as we’ve seen in the media, who not only line the pockets of his former minions (see: David Frum, Nicole Wallace) but also have been hell-bent on rehabbing his public image, portraying one of the worst presidents in history—a man who conned us into war, mainstreamed torture, destabilized the Middle East, and sank the global economy—as a candy-passin’, joke-crackin’ eccentric artist. As W. himself told author Mark K. Updegrove in The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld “didn’t make one fucking decision,” and “The fact that there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about who the president was blows my mind.”
Kevin: The movie has a lot of big ideas, and is constantly deconstructing itself. It’s sarcastic in places when it doesn’t work—a gag where the credits roll midway through plays like a sophomoric Borat-like “Not!” The constantly-flippant tone is often uncomfortable, mining as many laughs from the infamous hunting incident as it does from Cheney’s heart condition and negotiation of unitary executive power. Even if the intent is to craft a farce, some things should still carry gravity. There were multiple instances where the movie took such wild, misguided swings that we audibly scoffed, including a twist involving Jesse Plemons as the film’s narrator that was so offensive I nearly walked out. A ridiculous choice is made when it comes to the film’s final scene, suggesting a shrug from filmmakers who had no clue how to possibly tie up this sprawling mess.