Vice could easily have been a dry docudrama, based on the trailers that indicated something more formal, closer to the typical biopic. Leave it to Adam McKay to infuse it with even more of the inventive, mercurial stylization that characterized 2015’s The Big Short. Bringing in many of the same cast members, Vice almost feels like the next chapter in a cinematic universe of witty political comedies that pull very few punches, while dealing with current figures and issues. Even though it seems like comedians are the ideal narrative voice (or at least the best one we’ve got) in an increasingly post-fact world, it still felt surprising that Vice is often laugh-out-loud funny. The kinetic pacing keeps the extended run-time breezy, drawing audiences in with flashy performances yet offering much more. The film is complex and layered, walking a line between requiring political knowledge and being accessible to those without.
Vice recounts the life and times of Dick Cheney, a man mostly unnoticed at the height of his power in American politics. As the film explains, he is notoriously secretive, seeming to prefer to serve in the shadows of more visible figures. As time and distance from the Bush administration have grown, more about Cheney’s role in policy and executive decisions has emerged. Much of that informs this film. Unlike most stories of this kind, Vice is not a tale of a “rise and fall”. It’s more of a historiographic cautionary tale about how we wound up with the America we know and love today. Tracing power plays from the Nixon and Reagan administrations and connecting them to key decisions after George W. Bush’s narrow win in 2000, Vice eventually makes a special case out of Unitary Executive Theory. This is a potentially little-known interpretation of constitutional law that frees up the executive branch to wield almost limitless power. A brainchild of Cheney and his closest advisors, the film argues that we have these guys to thank for some of the lowest moments of America’s last twenty years.
Like The Big Short, Vice often feels like a presentation as much as a narrative work. The structure is a series of dramatic vignettes that are dynamically interrupted or supplemented by asides: text to relay facts, visual jokes and metaphors, as well as some gleeful smashing of the fourth wall. The through-line for most of the film is a voice over narration from Jesse Plemons that goes in a clever, unexpected direction. The result is a film that is trying to educate you in the most entertaining way possible. Vice carves through the boring transmissive style we might expect in a university lecture or memoir while getting closer to the vernacular of an increasingly checked out body politic.
To say that Christian Bale disappears into Dick Cheney is an understatement. It’s exactly the kind of performance that usually makes or breaks this type of movie. A high profile actor wants to spend a year studying and mastering the inflections, expressions, and body language of someone important, resulting in a film that exists to serve performance and, if one is cynical, the awards cycle. Vice has shades of that, with other cast members (Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell in particular) able to disappear almost as completely as Bale. If you’re here for the acting caliber, you won’t be disappointed.
The relationships Cheney has with people around him, particularly his family, are crucial to Vice’s biographical intent. McKay flirts with humanizing him with these scenes, showing a loving father and devoted husband, but these moments are undercut by the decisions Cheney makes to pursue and maintain power. As much as Vice indicts Cheney for his character and his decisions, it also spares little sympathy for Lynne (Adams) who occupies a vaguely Lady Macbeth role in the film and, presumably, real life. The only member of the family that the film seems to feel for is Mary Cheney (Alison Pill), a gay woman who seemed for years to be the one thing that really could humanize her father. Until there came a day. That’s the thing about Cheney -- a day always comes. There’s no one he won’t throw under the bus and Vice is an exploration of how a man becomes like that, especially if they don’t believe in anything.
Some might call this a hit-piece (it is a scathing indictment) or too little too late but that’s exactly why it’s so important to interrogate the legacies of political figures that wield enormous power in our names. Recently there’s been a kind of nostalgic, sometimes even fawning regard for Republican figures of the recent past. Vice feels like a rebuttal to that. Further, it feels like the work of a man who isn’t interested in going high just for the opposition to go low. In this sense, it’s almost a work of the so-called “dirtbag left”, American political commentators that wield irony and humor to combat the right’s propaganda monopoly. The gloves are off, or at least McKay’s are.