Vice (2018)

Directed by Adam McKay

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Okay, so a biopic can frame its subject in two ways, it seems: First is a traditional start to finish marathon, starting with the subject’s youth and charting their rise until we get to the end.  The second is a more narrow focus of an important moment in the subject’s life, through which we gleam who they were as a person.  Vice is the former.  Examples of the latter include Selma (2014), Jackie (2016), LBJ (2017), My Week With Marilyn (2011), Lincoln (2012).

What makes the story of Vice important is what the former Vice President did as part of the George W. Bush administration.  In a sense, everything until this point in the “story” is superfluous.  Some criticism I’ve read suggests the movie should just ignore everything before 2000 altogether, and such criticism may not be wrong.  As it is, Vice tries to give you a portrait of a man, explaining where he comes from and possibly what drives him.  In its wide scope it surely misses some of the nuance of his story, jumping quickly through his early career as if listing off his greatest hits rather than really digging into his character.  Such a long amount of time allows the movie to flex its biggest muscle, in a sense, showing Christian Bale’s transformation.

I quite enjoyed Vice, which surprised me since I had read so much meddling to outright negative reviews of the movie.  Maybe that’s why I liked it.

It’s a funny, dark movie that, to me, pulled no punches.  Sure, it might make Cheney an easy target for left-leaning audiences, and maybe his representation isn’t quite fair?  But it still seemed relevant to me, particularly with where the government is today.  I think some might recoil at a movie made about something so recent and so despicable, suggesting that we all know what happened so why belabor the point?  And maybe I’m not the most politically aware, but I like to think I have some grasp of what’s been going on these last couple decades and there was information in this movie that caught me off guard.  At the very least it clarified certain things I only knew abstractly, about why the U.S. started a war in Iraq and how that has cultivated certain unstable conditions in the Middle East today.

Basically, I think there’s something to be learned from all of this, and I think Vice is an important reminder of unchecked power and the way personal greed still works its way into men of the highest office who, of course in theory, are public servants.

It’s a disturbing story, but I think it’s an important one to remember because some people have probably already forgotten.  It’s hard to consider the significance of such recent history when it seems something wild and unprecedented happens every month or week these days.

The movie’s biggest aim is to show how much control Cheney had while working as the VP to former President George W. Bush.  We see how Cheney’s efforts and the work of the people around him got the country embroiled in an unnecessary war in Iraq (oil!), a conflict which destabilized the region and gave rise to a group like ISIS.  During the 9/11 attacks, while those around Cheney express horror, a narrator (Jesse Plemons) tells us that Cheney saw an opportunity.

So that’s what the movie wants to get across, all the atrocities propagated during Cheney’s time in office.  When we get there the movie is its most effective, but it takes quite some time before we see Cheney as we’re most used to seeing him, a balding, white-haired bespectacled man with crime on the mind.

Vice takes its time telling the story of Cheney’s rise to power.  We start with him as a young man in Wyoming, ostensibly at a low point before his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him a stern talking to.  Soon he’s a Congressional intern sidling up to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), and not long after that he becomes the youngest Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford.

I’m not sure there’s a small enough window of time to convey everything about Cheney that the movie wants to cover.  And anyways, this is an Adam McKay movie, and like The Big Short this movie takes a step back and tries to look at the whole picture.  His films, at least these last two more ‘serious’ efforts feature large ensemble casts and take aim at some kind of establishment.  They are less about nuance and more about the system in place, tackling it from multiple angles.

His movies are a strange combination of sardonic and hopeful.  Through the same comedic, sometimes mean-spirited chops of movies like Anchorman and Stepbrothers, which mock more than they celebrate, he seems to be constantly deconstructing something.  That same energy is put to use in these last two movies, but both end with a sort of call to action, the previous more so than this one.

I guess I don’t begrudge anyone who loathes this movie because there is enough cynicism in the world already.  The qualities and tone of this movie surely stand out more when juxtaposed to another Christmas release (oddly enough featuring the same composer, Nicholas Britell), Barry Jenkins’ tugging at the heart strings If Beale Street Could Talk.

They both tackle an issue, something unjust, though one is intimate and personal, and the other is almost inhumane in its scale.

Up Next: Traffic (2000), Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Three Kings (1999)

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