In 2015, I fell in love with Adam McKay. The Big Short came out in all of its frenetic and educational glory and swept me off my feet. That film triggered a lot of personal revelations concerning the housing crisis, the state of capitalism, and Steve Carell’s dramatic acting ability. I quickly fell in love with Adam McKay’s style and, in a “Piña-Colada”-Song type twist, I realized I’d fallen in love with him many times before. In my typical post-movie IMDb wormhole, I discovered he directed the Anchorman movies and Talladega Nights, some of my favorite comedies. With a filmography I adored and a fantastic trailer, I anxiously awaited Vice and the return of the hyper-edited TEDTalk seen in The Big Short. McKay delivered exactly that, but this time around it doesn’t pack the same punch.
The film follows Dick Cheney across nearly 50 years of his life from a younger, blue-collar drunk to eventually one of the most powerful political players in the world. Along for the ride is Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), his loyal and encouraging wife, as well as his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), his daughters Liz and Mary (Lily Rabe and Alison Pill), running mate George W. (Sam Rockwell) and all the political figureheads of modern American politics you either know and hate or are completely clueless about. This film doesn’t leave anyone out of the story, including the whole Cheney family, multiple Presidents, Senators, reporters, Cabinet members, and many more. Right off the bat all of the characters act to perfection, from even the smallest roles like Alfred Molina as a waiter describing torture options to Chaney as if they were high-brow entrees, to the biggest ones like Adams who kills as the central driving force of her husband’s entire career.
With so many performances to choose from, I have the incredibly difficult task of narrowing down those most relevant for discussion. To start, Rockwell’s portrayal of George W. Bush is somewhat of a caricature, yet the mannerisms and absurdity are perfectly throttled for each scene so that they never become too much of a distraction. The same can be said for Carell as Rumsfield, whose foul language and brash charm are ubiquitous but appropriately dosed. Balancing out Rockwell and Carell’s more comedic roles are Bale and Adams. Lynne and Cheney are each a side of the same coin. Both master manipulators, they navigate through the political landscape tactfully but with far different approaches. Lynne’s “simple housewife” facade deceives people to her true power, which she accumulates alongside Dick through the decades. Adams plays the Lady-Macbeth-like role with a quaint, Wyoming mask and great duplicity. Dick, on the other hand, prefers to watch, not even putting on a facade, just sticking to the shadows and subtly climbing his way up. Bale takes the polar opposite approach from Rockwell. Bale seeks to become the character physically and psychologically. He does so with what will be award-winning craft as I could only see Dick Cheney on screen, not Bruce Wayne or Patrick Bateman or Jack Kelly or even Bale himself. There is a monologue from Cheney that breaks the fourth wall, acting as a testament to Bale’s chilling and calculated persona he’s entered into. Honorable casting mentions include Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Don McManus as David Addington, and Jesse Plemons as Kurt, the film’s narrator.
The direction of this film leaves me on the fence. Just like The Big Short, there are big bureaucratic or field-specific mechanisms in the film that need explaining without slowing the story down. There is a quirky gallery of characters to juggle and keep straight while simultaneously aiming to entertain and since the subject matter isn’t particularly comedic, the laughs must come from the writing and filmmaking. McKay leads both films by check-marking those seemingly contradictory boxes with style and finesse. That’s the part I can’t stop thinking about when it comes to Vice. There are some gags in this film that made me laugh harder than the majority of mainstream comedies in recent years. It’s frankly impressive that I could laugh so hard at a film that so deeply uncovers true atrocities of Cheney’s political power. Without the laughs, the truth would be too grim for a general audience to absorb.
What keeps me from absolutely adoring this film is whether or not the style is appropriate for the story. Some directors adapt their style to the script, leaving only vestiges of themselves, while others make it absolutely known in whatever genre or story that this is their film. McKay, at least between his last two films, is one of the latter and if this series of “examinations of American recent events” continues, I think he’ll remain as such. The Big Short worked incredibly well because all parts of McKay’s approach were necessary. The laughs somewhat soothed the fresh wounds of the housing crash while the explanatory asides in the film let audiences understand the crisis and central event. It involved a large number of people and it made sense to include them all. The difference between The Big Short and Vice is that the first examines a systemic problem while the second focuses on a single person. The comedy and explanations work in the complex world of politics and executive power as does the extensive casts because those are the facts. Vice uses an angle that works fantastically well for systemic analysis, which the film does a lot of, but for a biopic, this actually devalues the central protagonist.
I learned, laughed, and loved the 132 minutes I spent watching Vice. I was excited to learn about the psychology behind Dick Cheney and why my AP Gov teacher couldn’t go through a single class without calling him a “cold and heartless bastard”. The what, when, where, and why was clear in the film, but the who is still foggy. Who is Dick Cheney? The film goes to great lengths to humanize Dick, showing his rise to power as an inspiring underdog story before flipping a sinister switch. Still, once he is Vice President, his motivations, besides wanting the best for his family, are quite unclear. The film even opens with a title card explaining how Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders on the planet, so they did their “f***ing best” to tell his story with what they had. The lack of a strong stance on his character is definitely a large setback to a film marketed as a tell-all regarding the life and political career of Dick Cheney.
If you’re young and have no idea why people curse the name Dick Cheney or you’re confused about why the Iraq War was a very, very, very bad thing, then watch this film. If you’re looking for a film that’ll make you laugh and make you think, then watch this film. I had a good time and would recommend the film to anyone along with a subtle warning: be aware that you’ll be watching an examination of the actions, not the mind, of Dick Cheney.
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