Vice (McKay, 2018)

It’s been several hours now since I watched Vice, and my opinion of it has dropped as the time passed. In the moment, it is compulsively watchable. You see McKay hitting highs and lows (frequently from one scene to the next), and the kinesis of his style prevents one from drifting off into space. Even when you want to, a flashy clip or a bonkers fake-out snaps you into focus once more. It is a fun film in the sense that it is not a humourless indictment of a humourless man. The political material is grim enough, so I’m not averse to touches of lightness when appropriate. For instance, the few times Cheney has a heart attack, which he announces with a terse “I… have to go to the hospital,” are perfectly fine moments of levity. They’re in keeping with the character, and they suit the wild tone of McKay’s vision. Bad men can have likable tics, too, McKay seems to say. They remind us that we’re all human here, and they don’t vindicate anything they do. Better to be reasonable and show Cheney to be a mortal man who did immoral things than something akin to the Devil incarnate. It’s fair.

The reason the film dropped in my estimation is that it works on the pretense that it will enlighten the masses to Cheney’s sins, when it doesn’t have very much to say that we don’t already know (or can’t already read about). Too short a time has passed since the Bush years to have a real sense of their impact as of yet (I’d wager a space of twenty or thirty years would yield more fruitful analysis). The film grinds out an imperfect thesis statement on how Cheney was the ghostly sine qua non for all our present ills with regard to the Trump era and its associated political ideology, and it tries to pinpoint all the evidence it can without taking into consideration all the other underlying factors that were also in play. Cheney, while very much a part of it, was not the only connective strand that helped pull the far-right to the fore. While no doubt a man invested with great power—and a man who abused it regularly—Cheney was only one part of a grander picture, and it’s this grander picture that Vice steps over. It’s not only a lazy way of approaching history: it’s unproductive. It’s akin to putting facts in a food processor and calling the result a “good-enough simplification.” With a subject as dire and worrisome as the meteoric rise of fascist and populist movements, however, simplification doesn’t cut it.

Because the audience surely knows there’s so much more to this than Dick Cheney, Vice exists in a strange no-man’s-land. Its incessant hectoring and evidence-building falls by the wayside as soon as the reasonable person sees the flaws in its argument. As a biographical portrait of Cheney, it’s far more interesting when it chronicles his early life as a hard-drinking university dropout who becomes Donald Rumsfeld’s protégé in Nixon’s White House. When we get to the Bush years, the film resembles a Wikipedia entry or unauthorized inside look a la Michael Wolff—a straight retelling of the familiar, and a reasonable reconstruction of what we don’t already know. Through it all, Christian Bale is committed, eerily capturing the man’s permanent scowl and implacable stare as he hustles his way to the top of the pecking order. I cannot call it an incredibly interesting performance, however. Bale doesn’t reach far enough to give us more than what he’s already compelled to give us. Amy Adams is a very good Lynne Cheney, who is portrayed as serpentine and demandingly ambitious. Again, though, the character is written flatly, and like Bale, Adams can only do so much with what she’s given. The same goes for Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell as George W. Bush and Rumsfeld, respectively. Neither performance is bad or uninteresting, but neither goes beyond the tics and tacks.

If there’s any real reason to watch Vice, it’s to see how it reaches for the stars and ends up being something of a noble failure. How its brassy, audacious, flagrant techniques work to serve a non-starter of an aim. With a stronger argument to work with, I think McKay could have nailed this. His in-your-face vision is angry and worth more than tepid indifference. All he must do now is let go of our hands and trust us to think more for ourselves, rather than patronizing us by stripping nuance from historicity and making us settle for the boilerplate.