The Problems with Vice

Author: Dom Rottman

CAUTION: Spoilers for Vice may follow.

A few disclaimers, to start.

  1. I do not support Dick Cheney or his policies, and in fact believe that most of his actions in his political career have been to the detriment of both the American people and the people of the world. Thus, I have no intention of defending his actions in any way.

  2. What follows, therefore, is not a vindication or defense of Dick Cheney as the subject matter of the film Vice, but rather a criticism of the film as a film.

  3. That said criticism which follows is somewhat in vein of a traditional film review, but remember, I can do whatever the hell I want. Therefore, I am not going to pretend that this article bears any resemblance in likeness or quality to a traditional, professional film review. You may refer to this piece as a review if you like, or not, I really don’t care.

With all of that out of the way, allow me to be blunt: The experience of viewing the film Vice is as if filmmaker Adam Mckay is giving the audience a intellectual handjob in exchange that, hopefully, the audience will give him a collective intellectual blowjob by the end of it.

A prestige biopic this film is not. Nor is it a sympathetic film, and does not try to hide its bias–nor should it. But despite today’s film industry cranking out actor-centric biopic Oscar bait like an assembly line, one can’t help but think that such a film of Dick Cheney might be less annoying and agitating if a bit boring.

While McKay’s much better film The Big Short had a similar style in both direction and writing which lent to a tone of dark absurdity and cynicism, in Vice the same style, turned up to 11, perpetuates a smug, holier-than-though tone throughout. Its directorial and narrative devices contribute nothing to the film and come off as pretentious fluff. The cutaways are more jarring than informative, uncomfortable close shots peppered throughout make the viewer feel, well, uncomfortable, Non-linear narrative is misused and overused, and unnecessary montage-esque sequences that go on for far too long had me rolling my eyes every time, wishing the movie would get on with it already. Highlights include a five minute sequence in pseudo-Shakespearean English (Which I’m not sure was done faithfully in iambic pentameter; I didn’t bother to count) hammed up with crackling thunder and a mid-movie credits fake out with blaring feel-good music. The cherry on top is the use of narration–not the use of narration itself, but what was done with it. Early in the film the narrator says to the audience “you’re probably wondering who I am by now.” I wasn’t. At all. The whole movie could have continued with narration and I wouldn’t have given a second thought to his identity. Nevertheless, it is revealed towards the end of the film that the narrator is Dick Cheney’s heart donor, a ‘character’ for whom the viewer cannot feel sympathy because he is, after all, only the narrator, in a final attempt to artificially generate contempt for the receptor.

Indeed, the entire film relies on the audience’s preconceived notions–it’s rather hard to imagine that someone would think this film is sympathetic, though I’m sure many made that mistake anyway–and artificial generation of disdain through neat tricks and smoke and mirrors to compensate for a narrative which ultimately fails to generate genuine dislike for Dick Cheney as he is portrayed in the film–as fantastic as Christian Bale portrayed him in the film–and for Dick Cheney himself. There’s not much to authentically dislike in a film that has too little in the way of proper narrative and too much in worthless claptrap than what is needed for a film focused on an individual.

Admittedly, making a movie of Dick Cheney period is ambitious and difficult for any filmmaker. The audience is told so explicitly at the beginning, on account of Dick Cheney’s secrecy. Furthermore, the American government is reluctant to reveal information of events and activities of half a century ago, much less one or two decades ago, and much less still on activities that are less than legal. It’s not an aimless attempt, to be sure, but there’s no choice for anyone but to connect the dots in a way that seems feasible–and therefore cannot be free of bias for better or worse.

That said, then, one cannot help but wonder if this film was worth making in the first place. Though this is certainly a left-liberal film, it is still a very bourgeois film. I found it very hard to connect to this film beyond “Dick Cheney was a very bad man who did very bad things for the country in which you live,” and did nothing to reflect, deconstruct, or give new perspective on today’s political conditions. Put another way, its hard to see how, say, the millions of impoverished people, minorities, and impoverished minorities in America would get anything out of this movie. Vice makes no attempt to break down the political walls that it analyzes. It only opens another narrow gate, and makes the audience feel as if they are being let into an exclusive club or being told a gnostic secret. A historical film doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to deconstruct–thought it is much better if it does–but a political film has an obligation to at least offer not only its audience, but really anyone, the opportunity to respond. It is for this reason that often the best political films are fictional (Dr. Strangelove, Sorry to Bother You, even The American President). Vice, in some sort of purgatory between both a historical film and a political one, makes some attempt at the latter within the confines of the former.

Granted, the movie sounded fine on paper, and hindsight is 20/20. And in today’s film industry there’s no point in canceling production after it begins even if there are misgivings, especially if there’s profit to be had, indeed almost guaranteed. But even the film’s chief aim, the critique of Dick Cheney, might have been better executed with a broader focus; say, a dark comedy about the Iraq war. Not only might such a film accomplish more than what Vice did in terms of perspective on Dick Cheney–illumination on a rather murky conflict, presentation of what was believed versus what actually happened (as far as we know), examination of its political impact–it would certainly suit McKay’s directorial style better, and would probably have more narrative freedom as well.

In sum, Vice is a failed attempt to genuinely lampoon Dick Cheney on his own actions or character and relies instead on audience preconceptions and a bunch of fluff–in both direction and screenplay–that artificializes at best and agitates at worst in order to achieve its goal.

For the record, you don’t need an excuse to make fun of Dick Cheney. You just fucking do it.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Notes:

  • Though one of my main criticisms was the poor use of directorial and narrative devices, one instance in which it worked out very well was a sequence towards the end where Cheney’s heart surgery is paired with his daughter Liz’s announcement that she was against same-sex marriage. Cheney, who throughout the film had shown nothing but support for his other daughter, Mary, in her sexuality, even going so far as to refuse to explicitly campaign against gay marriage in his agreement to become George W. Bush’s runningmate, is shown to have had a “change of heart” by (supposedly) telling Liz to come out against same-sex marriage.

  • Christian Bale’s fantastic performance as Dick Cheney has been universally lauded by critics, but perhaps even better was Amy Adams' performance as Lynne Cheney.

  • I’m not sure what I expected from Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, but I was underwhelmed. Also, there were no jokes or references about “There are known knowns [etc.]” Quite disappointing.