I always find it amusing when people criticize actors and Hollywood in general for talking about politics and when people say that actors should stay out of politics because their job is to entertain audiences, not preach to them about political ideologies. People go to the movies to escape from reality, so when they’re reminded of reality at the movies, it can be a bummer. More often though, people just get offended that actors and Hollywood are “pushing an agenda” on millions of unsuspecting Americans and forcing them to accept such inhumane ideas as women’s rights, equality for the LGBT community, and that maybe racism is bad. Oh the humanity!
In all seriousness, I’ve always addressed the criticism that actors cannot talk about politics in favor of the actors. Not just as a former actor myself, but because everyone has a political opinion regardless of their job. If you’re against an actor talking about politics, then you should be against hearing doctors, construction workers, and your own co-worker’s opinions unless they’re directly involved in politics. By that logic, only politicians should talk about politics because it’s their job, but that sounds unreasonable, doesn’t it? The average American is still going to talk about politics and it just so happens that actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters are all, GASP, fully developed humans with their own fully developed opinions! Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but just because you disagree where an actor leans politically doesn’t mean you should ignore their entire library of work.
I bring this up because Adam McKay has become a very political director, going to great lengths to express his political ideologies in The Big Short. Some people don’t like him because of how he’s very critical about politics, but his political stance never bothered me because his movies were still incredibly entertaining. His latest film, Vice, is an interesting and compelling movie that continues his new filmmaking approach while also feeling like a Scorsese movie in all of the best ways.
Director: Adam McKay
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Vice is a movie about the life and times of Dick Cheney, the 43rd Vice President of the United States of America. We start off with him as a power line worker in Wyoming and watch him slowly become one of the most influential and powerful advisors in Washington D.C. He’s involved in multiple presidential administrations in a variety of roles, ranging from an assistant to Donald Rumsfeld to White House Chief of Staff, before eventually leaving Washington and settling with his family in Virginia. That is, until, he receives a call from George W. Bush asking him to be his Vice President. The rest is history.
Dick Cheney has always been a naturally reclusive man. Not much is known about his thoughts or opinions on issues except for when he makes them publically known. Outside of those rare instances, we’re only left to extrapolate on what’s going through Cheney’s mind. And the movie does so too. Multiple times during its runtime, Vice and its narrator frequently remind the audience that there’s a lot we don’t know about Cheney, nor will we ever know. During the 9/11 attacks, Cheney was seen frequently talking to his lawyer in his security bunker, but no one knows why. The movie makes the smart decision about being a movie about Dick Cheney but never letting us get to know him. He’s kept at arm’s length away, giving us reason to think why he does what he does.
Christian Bale gives a performance of a lifetime as Dick Cheney, becoming near unrecognizable as the feared politician. Before the movie came out, I would frequently show people a picture of him as Cheney and tell them to guess the actor, yet no one was ever able to get it right. Bale immerses himself into the role in a way that I can hardly believe. He exudes this aura of dominance and power that very few actors can pull off. Bale is now easily a front-runner for Best Actor and it’s going to be damned hard to best him. Special mention also needs to be given to Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, who’s just as ruthless and commanding as her husband, and Steve Carrell as Rumsfeld, who manages to be both likable and a complete creep simultaneously.
The movie is never framed like it was a factual retelling of Cheney’s life. There’s a strong comedic edge to Vice with a lot of McKay’s old tricks from back when he did comedic Will Ferrell movies coming through. You’ll have news anchors explain certain difficult concepts to the audience, make easy to understand comparisons like saying how Cheney was a Washington version of Galactus, and using fun metaphors to explain just how much influence this man and his political team had during the Bush administration.
At times it felt like I was watching a criminal get away with countless crimes, which probably wasn’t by accident. Cheney’s actions are never framed as being right or wrong for most of the movie, but by the time we reach the Iraq War it’s very clear where the movie sits on whether or not it think Cheney was a good man. This movie isn’t going to change your mind on what you think of him, and it won’t let you empathize with him, but it will let you understand how he was able to do what he did. Don’t forget, this was a man who shot a man in the face on a hunting trip and the victim apologized to Cheney for inconveniencing him.
At times, this felt like the natural evolution of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. One dealt with blue collared men doing bad deeds, the other with white collared men doing bad deeds, but now we get to see it on a significantly larger scale. It almost comes across like a game to him, seeing just how much influence and power he can amass while damning any future ramifications. If something bad was going to happen after he left office, he didn’t care because it wouldn’t be happening to him. The result of this is an ending that’s almost as sobering as BlacKkKlansman’s controversial ending, showing just how much of an impact Cheney’s time as the Vice President was to America and how we can still feel it today.
Getting away from the subject matter for a minute, the film’s framing device works wonders. Our narrator is a man named Kurt who just seems to be your average Joe. As he said, he has a lovely wife and a child that loves to watch Spongebob. That’s about it. But whenever he appeared he always brought some kind of insight and energy that helped put everyone on the same page. Unlike Mary Queen of Scots, which assumes the audience knows everything about its subject matter, Vice will instead slow down the movie to help audience members understand what Cheney or any of the other politicians were talking about.
What’s most interesting to me is that McKay portrays Cheney as a Shakespearean figure. Both literally and figuratively, McKay alludes that Cheney is no different from Richard III or any of the Bard’s villains from his history plays, so naturally, we begin to view him as that. Other critics have been pointing out the similarities to him and Shakespeare’s charismatic dictator, but I’ll only agree with that to an extent. By the time he’s in the White House consolidating power, he’s 100% in his Shakespearean dictator mode, using executive powers like tissues at a cold convention. But for the time leading up to his term he’s interesting, but not the main character, and that’s my biggest flaw with Vice, though I’ll be the first to admit that this flaw in no way destroys the movie.
The movie begins with Cheney starting out in Washington during the 70’s, but it’s not until the early 2000’s that the movie becomes captivating. Cheney isn’t the main character of the movie until then. Up until that point, it’s Cheney reacting to the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, adjusting his position in D.C. accordingly. Bale and the great supporting cast are still able to carry the movie during that time, but it always felt like I was waiting for the good stuff to happen. When does the movie get good? As soon as the Vice becomes Vice.
Technically the movie is entertaining to watch, either through fun editing tricks or the insertion of the actors into historical footage. Sometimes it works well, like seeing Bale as Cheney throw the opening pitch at a baseball game, sometimes not so well like Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush giving the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. There are several cut to blacks, but while I can see how it could bother some, I found it refreshing. Whenever the film cut to black, I had no idea if the next shot was going to be reality, archived historical footage, or some weird segue that the movie devised to prove a point.
Vice is adamant about showing the extent of what Dick Cheney has done to America. Whether or not you’ll like that is up to you, but it’s clear that the movie doesn’t really care what you think of him. It frames his actions as ruthless and efficient and you’re left to fill in the blanks for yourself. It’s a strong comedy, a successful drama, and an insightful look into Dick Cheney and what may have motivated his actions. But as the movie states in its first five minutes “We tried our fucking best.”