‘Vice’ is exhausting, ambitious and deeply partisan — just like Dick Cheney

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Dec. 26, 2018 / 8:15 PM GMT

By Ani Bundel

Christmas has finally arrived, and with it another bizarre, toddler-style meltdown from our current commander-in-chief. This has been one of the most exhausting years in recent political memory, a year that felt like it went on for a decade. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that this incredibly long, strange year will end with an openly political holiday film.

“Vice” is less a coherent film, however, than it is four A-list actors giving virtuoso performances without the consistent support of writing or directing. The film clearly wants to blame its main protagonist Dick Cheney for what the world has become. But it’s unwilling to really commit to making that case in a substantive way. In the end, the film winds up on an ugly, exhausting “both sides-ism” note that blames everyone and no one.

Everything about “Vice” is a little odd. There’s the name, for instance, which sounds like a Lars Von Trier film about sex tapes gone wrong.

Everything about “Vice” is a little odd. There’s the name, for instance, which sounds like a Lars Von Trier film about sex tapes gone wrong. Not so long ago, a film like this would never have been released on Christmas. Hollywood would have taken one look at the lecturing, liberal premise and declared it a box office dud. After all, what normal family would spend a nationwide holiday watching a film which purports to lambast one of the most divisive political figures of the last 50 years.

But the world has changed a lot since President George W. Bush took office with Cheney as his right-hand man in 2000. Director Adam McKay wants us to think that most of the potholes America has stumbled into are to be laid at Cheney’s feet. Or at least, he seems to want us to think that. For all its moralizing, this is a movie that can feel almost accidentally sympathetic towards its main subject, even as it attempts to flay him as the scourge of our times.

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A lot of that sympathy has to with Christian Bale’s performance. To call it an impersonation would not begin to scratch the surface of what Bale has done here, which is to inhabit the persona of Cheney so completely you can barely see the actor within. But Bale isn’t the only one who has dug so deep he’s turned the villain into an anti-hero. His Cheney is so phenomenal, it encourages everyone around him to step up their game. The result is Amy Adams giving more dimensions to Lynne Cheney than the script thought possible; Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in a supporting role that does more to explain Rumsfeld than it does Cheney; and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, giving breadth and depth to a man so lightweight, it’s a wonder the character doesn’t combust from the paradox. There are other starling cameos too, including LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, in a regularly scheduled reminder of his serious acting chops.

In effect, these prodigious star turns are the movie’s downfall, because they throw off the balance of the piece. The movie insists it’s a dark comedy. There are plenty of surrealist moments, such as the credits rolling halfway through the film, “Monty Python” style, or when Cheney in complete seriousness suggests a round of penis puppetry on the White House lawn. But the performances of Bale, Adams, and Rockwell bring massive amounts of weight to these characters and sympathetic angles no one seems to know what to do with. Carell, in particular, brings a peculiar pathos to Rumsfeld, to which the film throws up its hands, suggesting any pity we might feel should be blamed on Cheney, too.

The performances of Bale, Adams, and Rockwell bring massive amounts of weight to these characters and sympathetic angles no one seems to know what to do with.

One of the reasons the film has such trouble juggling its comedic and dramatic elements is the format, which moves forward and backward in time with little warning. This disjointed storytelling device was highly praised when McKay used it in his last Oscar contender, “The Big Short.” But that movie worked because it was telling the story of the 2008 Wall Street crash, a difficult to understand historical event without a clean, central narrative thread. “Vice” has a central thread: Cheney. But by jumping all around, the story, which tries to portray Cheney as this Machiavellian spider in the center of a great web, strikes many glancing blows but few knockout punches.

Instead of these surrealist comedy stylings, it feels like a film of this nature requires a grand drama in the style of a tragic Shakespearean history. But McKay thumbs his nose at such an idea, to the point that he stages a Macbeth-style bedroom scene between the Cheneys, done totally in blank verse. McKay’s point here seems to be that a drama about American history done in this stilted 16th century manner would not be watchable. He’s not wrong. But there’s got to be a happy medium between going “full Shakespeare” (if you will) and using an ultramodern style that neglects pretty vital connective tissue.

Ultimately, without a single narrative, the film’s center feels a little bit hollow. McKay suggests Dick Cheney, a white man who failed upward, pushed by a wife who held the real ambitions of the family, is responsible for the state of the world today. Most of all, the film attempts to blame Cheney for the election of Donald Trump and his ability to stay in office. Over and over, in scene after scene, McKay hammers at the idea that Cheney promoted and built a presidency based on the premise of Unitary Executive Theory, which the film boils down to mean: “If the president does it, it’s automatically legal.” This is a worldview Trump subscribes to heavily and leans on publicly as more and more of his abuses of power come to light.

It seems like McKay wants his viewers to leave the theater with a longer view of history, but he undercuts this goal with scenes that blame voters for not caring about politics or allowing Cheney to deliver monologues about our country being safer because of his decisions. We’re supposed to come away thinking Trump’s election wasn’t an accident, but a foreseeable result of the system Cheney left behind. But the message is both too strident and too fragmented to ever truly stick.

Either way, McKay’s is a startling message for Hollywood to be putting in theaters on Christmas. That the studio has done so suggests it believes there is enough rage against the GOP and Republicans to drive audiences to see it this season. How much our world has changed. I suppose the movie would argue Cheney did that too.