David G. Hughes on Adam McKay’s ‘Vice’ (2018)
Towards the latter end of Vice, a film about the thirty-year Machiavellian duplicity of former Vice President Richard “Dick” Cheney, actor Christian Bale looks down the camera and admonishes the audience for their inevitable moral judgements cast upon the protagonist’s ethical character. The truth is that Cheney has already been judged. Not by God, nor even by the audience, but by director Adam McKay. McKay, fresh off the success of his overrated financial collapse comedy The Big Short (2016), has turned his attention from Wall Street to the White House. In the process he has committed the cardinal sin of biopics: he’s got his mind made up.
Vice gives viable credence to the whiny feeling held by conservative Americans that Hollywood is unfairly replete with overly liberal perspectives (the film is produced by Brad Pitt no less). Indeed, nothing in this liberal wet dream is left ambiguous or coy – it is a fundamental, uncontested truth that Dick Cheney is an evil man, perhaps even the Devil (Christian Bale recently thanked Satan after winning the Golden Globe). While the film does concede to the man an ability to love his family, even this is sublimated towards ignoble ends — it being the force that propels Cheney to earn the pride of his family and reach the top, whether that means invading a country or two.
This is faux-psychology, something we’ve seen before in Oliver Stone’s equally partisan W. (2008). In that film, Cheney is played by Richard Dreyfuss (a physical resemblance that required no makeup) and when discussing the leaving plan from the proposed invasion of Iraq, Dreyfuss’ Cheney pauses with sinister glee and proposes, “We don’t. We stay.” Later on, while appearing on The Bill Maher Show, left-wing Stone was asked about this line. He chuckles and admits, “That was my line.” Of course it was; Cheney has been the bête noire of the liberal left for decades, his shadowy and discreet persona easy to project all kinds of conspiracy theories, imaginings, and negative feelings onto (Steve Bannon has recently assumed this role, hence the slew of documentaries about the man). This is exactly what McKay has done in his dogmatic, self-satisfied, and snarky film.
It may be the case that Dick Cheney is not worth defending (certainly not the agenda of this critic), nor a life even worth adding nuance to. But, in an inadvertent way, Vice gets to the question of what you want your film art to be – convenient or human? The dichotomy between ‘defence’ and ‘criticism’ of an entire individual is often a false one when that between reality and personality is far more engaging. When you enter Vice you should know that everything has been decided for you. In a panoply of greatest hits, McKay presents a prosecution to the court and we in the audience are coerced into the role of a jury; something my fellow audience members were quite willing to do, liberal stones poised to hurl.
You are not there to share a journey or wrestle with some of the most controversial historical debates of recent times. No, you are there to sit and learn; to learn how Cheney, being the villainous hand behind it all, is personally responsible for almost every international catastrophe of the modern era. That might well be true, but it’s about as legitimate or helpful as a butterfly effect theory. And it doesn’t cut the mustard as art.
Tonally, Vice gives weight and moral righteousness to some of the most formative events of contemporary history, bemoaning the corrupted state of the world, and trying to present an earnest “expose”. On the other hand, it’s all so incredibly glib and self-satisfied, a purported sympathy for victims of terrorism and war coming across as crass exploitation rather than genuine concern. In actuality, despite all the films comic nihilism, Vice is pure wish-fulfilment. Early in the film, when Cheney is learning the ropes under the wing of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in good form), he takes a moment to ask, having never considered it before, “what do we believe?” Rumsfeld laughs hysterically, walks away, and the film leaves it at that. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of laughing in this film, usually of a maniacal cartoon kind. How convenient would it be if Republicans had no principles, right? If only if there was a Deep State in control of everything. Or better yet: a single individual. Yes, that would make for a far simpler world. Vice believes in little but the greed of monsters, but its nihilism is betrayed in its need to believe in functioning power structures, no matter how conspiratorial it is.
Vice is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is, or as funny. If it’s a smart film, it’s a very dumb smart film; McKay has done his reading, but he’s mistaken in believing he is offering any insight. The film is so bold as to make comparisons to Shakespeare, suggesting that the only difference between the works of the English playwright and the events of the film is the absence of expressive monologues, as that just “doesn’t happen in the real world.” There’s a larger and more significant difference though: Shakespeare understood conflict of the psyche and the nature of human tragedy – right versus right. In other words, he knew humans. For McKay, the level of dramatic sophistication comes from the fact that this is about vice and Cheney’s the Vice President, get it? Or, in a metaphor as subtle as an Soviet Montage, because Cheney’s had many heart attacks throughout his life, it must be because his heart is so…rotten! Also! He likes to fly fish, perhaps because he himself likes to bait and reel them in. The only bait here is liberal bait. If the Cheney story needed telling, it’s not so obvious that McKay, known for cartoon caricatures, is the man for the job.
Particularly as a restless McKay seems incapable of allowing the story to simmer, or reveal itself. Most distracting is a voice-over that continually interrupts any development of inter-human drama to didactically inform us what to think. The great work that Bale puts into his role is perpetually undercut by overwrought editing, fantasy sequences, terrible pacing, and cheap devices – one can’t help but feel that the film is working against its actors work. Meaningful quotes on the nature of power, media recordings of real world catastrophes (ideally contrasted to decadent wealth of its architects), documentary style voice-over (always the voice of conscience) – these are barely even cinematic devices anymore and more like tried-and-tested political hammer tools, as any viewer of left-leaning political documentaries knows.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Vice has taken a rather different direction; whereas an opening disclaimer makes light on the films ignorance (“We did our fucking best”, says the opening scrawl), that does not deter its absolutism; fuelled by its ideological confidence it goes the whole hog and speaks in the most brash and confounding manner, not letting a thing like doubt get in the way.
This is a film that never gets under Cheney’s smug smirk. In fact it refuses to, instead finding infantile glee in a convenient self-affirming worldview: that the smirk is all. This is interesting in a time when the smile of a Catholic school boy has in recent days incensed the liberal world. If Vice had a modicum of self-awareness, it would see that the only vice on display here is the ego and narrow outlook of the filmmakers, and somewhere between its righteousness and condescension is the largest shit-eating grin of all.
Vice is showing in cinemas 25th January 2019.