Thursday, January 3, 2019
Adam McKay’s Vice may be the most pornographic film of the year that has nothing to do with sex. One part biopic of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), one part satire of the past half-century of American politics, there are plenty of moments in Vice where one might be inclined to look away (and perhaps can’t). It’s not for the squeamish. The film barrages the viewer with wince-worthy footage, both real and fictional. The film sutures together an array of disturbing content, including newsreel footage from the 9/11 attacks, torture scenes from the darkest days of the “War on Terror,” and a lingering vision of an anesthetized Dick Cheney mid heart transplant — the VP’s cold, dead heart lying on a metal slab, his chest cavity empty, awaiting a fresh occupant. Even for those who might find the thoroughly negative portrait of Cheney and his politics cathartic, watching Vice feels like vice indeed
Part of this emerges from Christian Bale’s astonishingly realistic performance as Cheney. Bale’s portrayal doesn’t exactly humanize the shadowy, “almost a ghost” VP. Rather, it disturbingly depicts how the head-hanging bureaucrat could lovingly support his lesbian daughter after her coming-out without ceasing to be a partisan reptile. Yet the mark of an excellent biographical portrayal of a public figure is when one walks out of the theater feeling it necessary to confirm whether or not multiple scenes were fiction or actual news footage.
Other cast members provide equally stunning renderings. For anyone who might have thought it was difficult to laugh at Donald Rumsfeld’s mad bluster during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, the opportunity finally arrives in Vice thanks to the brilliant Steve Carell. Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of George W. Bush as reformed frat boy is pure pleasure, and maybe even a bipartisan one. In one memorable scene, Rockwell’s Bush addresses the nation after the opening shots of the Iraq war. The scene is familiar, until the camera takes us below the President’s desk, where the leader of the free world’s foot shakes with terror as the first bombs of the war thunder down on Baghdad. The most complex character of the film is Lynne Cheney, played by Amy Adams. Mrs. Cheney’s alliance with her husband, which she explains early on is necessary for a woman in pursuit of political influence, doesn’t exactly make her a feminist icon, but it does reveal the bitter structural limitations faced by women of all political stripes in Washington.
Vice also disturbs by walking a precarious genre line. The film contains a compelling, detailed biopic arc, which shows us previously unrecognized glimpses of the cipher VP’s private life and experience. Yet McKay, whose previous films include Anchorman (2004) and The Big Short (2015), is in the first place a satirist of American culture, and the blending of biopic conventions with those of bitter, brilliant satire occasionally leave the viewer confused regarding the film’s message. Are we supposed to be angry about Cheney’s behavior? Or are we just supposed to think it was absurd, and laugh? The answer to both questions seems to be yes, but the coexistence of both possibilities here runs the risk of trivializing the actions of a man partly, if not largely responsible for advocating a war in which more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians and some 4,000 American soldiers lost their lives.
Vice contains a strong “meta” quality. It features a third-person narrator, whose identity cannot be disclosed because it would spoil the film’s heart, as well as House of Cards-esque soliloquys, and even a false, alternate ending. This does make the film a tad didactic. Michael Moore could easily be in the director’s seat. Vice also seems reductive insofar as it lumps singular blame onto Cheney for the Iraq War and almost all of our subsequent political woe. Yet it brilliantly shows how 9/11 served as a warrant to take control of Iraq and its oil wealth, and provides a deserved, historically accurate critique of the obscene contract profits earned by Halliburton, Cheney’s former company.
In short, it’s a delight to laugh when Steve Carell seems to walk directly out of his role as Brick in Anchorman into former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (“I’m like bed bugs! You’ve got to burn the mattress to get rid of me.”). But our participation may not be so innocent. Films, television, and other coercive visual media have opportunities to both reflect and shape reality. Vice is a smart film, and an important one, but one suspects its self-consciousness is not quite the ethical alibi McKay thinks it is. Just ask anyone who once laughed at the obvious absurdity of Donald Trump’s bluster on The Apprentice, and then, a decade later, considered voting for him — or did.