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I’m pretty sure I’ve never quoted William Shakespeare in a film review, but this particular movie dives into Shakespearean language at one point and so I think it's fair game. The words that keep ringing in my head regarding Adam McKay’s “Vice” are courtesy of the bard: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
A lot happens in "Vice." There's a ton of sound, and a sizable amount of fury. And there’s certainly an interesting story waiting to be told about the George W. Bush administration and the role Vice President Dick Cheney played in shaping the current state of our country. But this movie just isn’t it. The film lacks insight, ingenuity, and intensity, skimming the surface of history like a drunk guy at a holiday party who read a Wikipedia entry that he really wants to talk to you about right now. For people even remotely engaged in the national political landscape for the last two decades, “Vice” offers nothing new to consider. Great films about American politics are conversation starters; mediocre ones are like dull lectures, one-sided. This is the latter, and not at a very good college.
Employing many of the same techniques he used on “The Big Short”—straight-to-camera explanations, quick-cut montages to jump through history—McKay tackles Cheney's life (a heavily made-up Christian Bale). One of the key problems with that last sentence, is that Cheney has a lot of life to cover. Instead of focusing completely on the meat of the matter—Cheney’s time in the White House—McKay offers a limp opening half-hour that plays out like a surprisingly rote biopic. We know that we’re here for the Bush years, and so Cheney’s drunken youth and his years with Nixon have an unintended air of wheel-spinning prologue. The desire to interrogate how Cheney impacted politics in the years before Dubya asked him to be his running mate is a notable one, but McKay goes way more by-the-numbers than the man’s history demands. What he learned from Nixon, Donald Rumsfeld, especially his time at Halliburton—it’s all superficial, connect-the-dots filmmaking.
And then the saga of one of history’s most notable opportunists gets to the “good stuff” in the Bush administration (and, to be fair, improves as a piece of filmmaking). McKay paints a picture of a man who realized that he could turn what had been a largely useless government position into one of great power. Say what you will about his politics or moral center, Cheney knew how to take opportunities when they came to him, and he realized that he could refashion the office of the Vice President under George W. Bush, and finally put his fingerprint on American political history. The factual beats are all here. It’s the “why” or “why should we care” that’s missing.
Part of the problem is a glib, mocking tone that doesn't fit the material. In one scene, Bale and Adams, as his wife Lynne, interrupt their own conversation to comment on the Shakespearean nature of it all, then transition into actual Bardian verse. I’ve always bristled at people in movies who say things like “This only happens in the movies,” but this is a new level of that same overly self-aware problem. And don’t get me started on the narrative framing of “Vice,” which comes courtesy of a mysterious character played by Jesse Plemons, whose ultimate connection to Cheney left me scratching my head as to what McKay was saying by having him narrate this story. The answer? I don’t think he knows. And that’s the biggest problem. McKay often thinks that hitting the beats of a true story in a clever way is the same thing as historical commentary. It’s not. Making a reference is not the same thing as writing drama. Presenting a historical event in a way that other filmmakers may not have considered only matters if there’s meaning behind the presentation. Being different isn’t the same thing as being smart.
Much has been made of Christian Bale’s performance but I found it more impression than insight, and Amy Adams is wasted on a role that she can do in her sleep. Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell make out much better, often stealing their individual scenes. Rockwell refuses to go with the goofy idiot version of Bush we’ve seen before, which makes for a much more interesting character, and Carell doesn’t fall victim to impression at all, sketching a bitter vision of Rumsfeld that might be the deepest bit of historical commentary in the film.
Cheney is a towering figure in American politics. He helped shape the entire world and our role in it after 9/11. How he did so and why he did so could make for great American drama. Perhaps we are just too close to it now to really see the full picture—we are very much still riding in the wake of decisions Cheney made while in the White House, and historical biopics made while history is being written often falter. All I know is that Cheney deserved an acidic, smart movie that’s as unforgettable as his political career. My politics may not align with his, but even I can recognize that his legacy doesn’t deserve something as toothless as “Vice.”
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