VICE: Press conference featured

The world is a weird place. A decade ago, people of certain political persuasions would have sworn that Bush 43’s administration was the worst of modern times and one worse could not be imagined. Now, well, Bush passes out hard candies at funerals, paints, and Trump is President so…things feel different. The new film VICE takes us back to a time where Bush did feel like the worst that could be for so many American citizens. Is it a trip to the past worth taking?

VICE: Lynne Cheney
Amy Adams is NOT happy. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

The Idea Behind VICE

How a no-good party boy becomes an amoral political machine, the Richard Cheney edition. Beginning with Cheney (Christian Bale) as 22-year-old electrical linemen in Wyoming with a penchant for the booze and fighting, the movie focuses on how he grew from into the ruthless most powerful Vice President in United States history.

Along the way we meet Lynne (Amy Adams), the woman who tells him he better straighten up and fly right and then becomes his wife and biggest booster. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), his first political boss and his introduction to the kind of “winning and being on the inside is all that matter” politics Cheney grows to be a master of, shows up soon after. By the end of the film, nearly every prominent conservative of his time will be referenced if not make an on-screen performance culminating in Cheney running mate/patsy George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).

VICE: Dubya
Sam Rockwell unwinds a bit in a scene from VICE. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Writing VICE

Viewers of THE BIG SHORT will quickly recognize writer/director Adam McKay’s tone throughout the script. If anything, his signature mix of tongue-in-cheek snark, can you believe this? winking, and outright outrage becomes even more upfront and aggressive. The structure of the script is both straightforward and wildly all over the place. It progresses generally from point A to point F and through B, C, D, and E to do so. Along the way, though, there are diversions to the home of a narrator (Jesse Plemons) multiple times. We also get treated to an incredibly effective credits joke, several visual metaphors related to fishing, and a direct address monologue.

As the script goes on, the pace and ability to hold the audience’s focus slackens. The scenes of Cheney’s becoming are compelling. We can see the seduction of power in slow motion, the small key moments that would grow to become enormous terrible influences on the fully formed Cheney. However, even those not particularly politically astute will be familiar with nearly every “revelation” about Cheney post-9/11. As a result, it starts to feel like attending a history class the session before the big test.

Lastly, the script makes a big jump in the closing minutes implying Cheney turned even darker shortly after literally losing his heart — for another in a transplant. In addition to being a horrible obvious metaphor, we just watched this man manipulate his nation into an unnecessary war, create a surveillance state we still dwell under and authorize torture. Sure, how he plays his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) is galling but, come on. He was officially a monster long before that moment.

VICE: The Narrator
Jesse Plemons laces up in VICE. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Casting VICE

Christian Bale is just excellent. Regardless of how I feel about the rest of VICE, there is no denying this is an impeccable performance. The makeup might be impressive, but what really thrills is how Bale completely disappears into Bale. I can’t think of a better realization of a roughly current public person since probably Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand in THE INSIDER. Truth be told, though, all the performances are good to great. Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Shea Wigham… everyone shows up to play, everyone delivers.

VICE: Donald Rumsfeld
Steve Carell? Also not happy. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Filming of VICE

The somewhat scattered nature of the script becomes even more pronounced in the direction. McKay cuts between styles, tossing in multiples techniques into the ring, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a while, sometimes in short repeated bursts. It makes for a compelling, sometimes overwhelming document. I love the stylistic choices, I just wish they were employed with a bit more verve, a bit less bluntness. The aforementioned heart metaphor does not get better in the visual. Nor does the use of a fishing metaphor, which does not appear until some point until after the halfway point but then becomes an excessively used reference point. Nonetheless, overall, McKay continues to grow in as a director in an encouraging way.

VICE: Accepting the VP
Christian Bale seems unhappy in this scene from VICE, but trust me he is beaming. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

Although not literally a second film, this very much feels like a director’s sophomore effort. Cleary every bit the movie Adam McKay wanted to make it feels sprawling and aggressive. That gives the whole movie exciting energy. It reaches for divergent elements to connect on the basis of the director’s desires. Moreover, it indulges all McKay’s already documented techniques, obsessions, and aesthetic desires. That makes it fascinating.

However, as a persuasive piece of film-making, it does not break new ground. I can’t imagine anyone coming away from VICE feeling differently about Cheney or the 43rd Presidential Administration. The compelling human moments, like those involving Cheney’s protection of Mary and his eventual retraction of that, are often overshadowed by the overly busy choice McKay keeps making.

In many ways, its energy feels ultimately opposite that of BIG SHORT. Instead of explaining events that most of us missed or misunderstood, it confuses events most of us were very aware of until we feel distanced from one of the biggest U.S. tragedies of all-time. Lastly, for those of us who lived through that period and loathed the choices our government made, the movie does not provide an angry catharsis or a deeper appreciation for what occurred. Instead, it just leaves you with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach as you are forced to watch a slow-motion car accident of event you feel like you can recall as easily as the back of your hand.

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