Vice, released on Christmas Day, is a scathing review of an era that director Adam McKay might label as Dick Cheney’s reign in public service. Similar to The Big Short, in which McKay uses humor to promote a political agenda, Vice takes aim at disrupting and informing public opinion on recent historical events. However, unlike the bankers of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the administrators of the Bush Administration, and Cheney above all, are more specifically vilified.
The film itself is a type of biopic and follows Dick Cheney from his pre-Congressional days as a Yale dropout to his career as Vice President of the United States. However, the film extends beyond the purview of a simple biographical piece and takes artistic liberties, such as a fictional narrator who breaks the fourth wall altogether and a comic Shakespearean interlude around the event of Cheney deciding upon his candidacy for the Vice Presidency. This disregard for continuity and the consequent fragmentation is part of McKay’s style, tangible in The Big Short as well, and aims to dissect a complex, frightening historical moment in a humorous fashion.
Yet, it fails in a sense. Rather than navigating a partisan battlefield and delivering an educational message to the moderate viewer, it seems to build a case against conservatives. During a credits scene, the film admits as much, issuing a wall-breaking, self-aware comment about the liberality of the film that instigates a fistfight onscreen. In this particular scene, a survey group from earlier in the film returns to the screen and a conservative member of the group denounces the film. In response, a liberal member of the group retorts, claiming that the conservative is ignoring facts. Conflict ensues. As a final image in a controversial film, this last scene does not resolve any of the issues presented throughout the film nor comfort the viewer with a final laugh. Rather, it sows discord in full awareness of the arguments that the film will instigate. In a time as politically convulsive as this, a satire so critical as Vice does not do much but stoke an already roaring flame.
Some aspects of the film, which has been only moderately liked by critics, are undeniable in their quality. Christian Bale, who plays Dick Cheney, performs to the standard of an Oscar winner. Having gained 40 pounds for the role and memorized Cheney’s mannerisms, Bale looks and moves like the man himself. Amy Adams, joining Bale for the third time in a feature film, almost takes the show herself in her role as Bale’s dramatic foil, Lynne Cheney. The Lynne Cheney character acts as a type of protagonist at times in the film, such as an early scene where she is depicted threatening Bale’s Cheney if he does not straighten up and become productive. However, we find throughout the film that she is just as power-hungry and ambitious as her husband, helping him campaign for his first Congressional seat and serving as his advisor and confidant throughout many of his postings. The remainder of the supporting cast is full of high-quality talent, such as Sam Rockwell (who plays a vacuous George W. Bush), Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld) and Jesse Plemons.
Vice seems indicative of the current political climate, where both sides of the political aisle seem intent on laying blame on the opposite side without room or want for compromise. The film itself is far from being an objective treatment of the life of Dick Cheney or of the Bush Administration, but it is not meant to be. McKay wants the audience to feel strongly about his film and is unwilling to open up to discussion. That final fight scene, though self aware, is also an admission of McKay’s own single-mindedness. As a biopic, the audience would hope to see a film with a further degree of separation from contemporary political sentiment. This separation would allow both the merits and demerits of the individual in question. Depicting events from as recently as ten years ago, this film provides no room for objectivity.
Beyond this, the satire involved throughout the film only thinly veils the barrage of criticism, rather than effectively serve as a call to arms for the audience or a reasoned lobby against conservatism. In simpler terms, it is a revenge piece, and that makes it hard to love as a film, even for Cheney’s haters. One feels the grime of slander walking out of the theatre. It is a complicated film that quickly covers a number of complicated historical events and political issues. To have given credence to his point of view, Adam McKay needed to have expended more time and energy to comprehensive presentation of each of the contentious issues, rather than simply use artistic liberties to portray Dick Cheney in as evil a light as possible.