Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Movie Review: Vice

Vice *** / *****
Directed by: Adam McKay.
Written by: Adam McKay.
Starring: Christian Bale (Dick Cheney), Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney), Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld), Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush), Jesse Plemons (Narrator), Shea Whigham (Wayne Vincent), Alison Pill (Mary Cheney), Lily Rabe (Liz Cheney), Eddie Marsan (Paul Wolfowitz), Tyler Perry (Colin Powell), Justin Kirk (Scooter Libby), Bill Camp (Gerald Ford), Fay Masterson (Edna Vincent), LisaGay Hamilton (Condoleezza Rice).
Watching Vice was an odd experience for me. From the start, I admired Christian Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney – he nails the mannerisms and speech pattern, his walk and everything exterior about the man. I also think he attempts – as much as the film will let him – to understand Cheney, and get under his skin. The movie really isn’t interested in that though – it wants to skim the surface of Cheney’s life, and essentially take a hatchet to Cheney’s legacy. It doesn’t seem too interested in why Cheney did anything that he did – just what he did. Written and directed by Adam McKay the film is smug in the extreme – seeming to think it’s being clever, when it’s really more annoying than anything. I didn’t like McKay’s approach here – which, oddly, made me think it was treating Cheney (whose politics I despise) unfairly. I didn’t really like Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush (sorry, but if you’re going to go the Bush was clueless route, why didn’t McKay go whole hog and get the Producer of this film – Will Ferrell – to bring his Bush out of retirement). And the whole framing device of Jesse Plemons narrating the story without telling us who he is until the end was terribly misguided. And yet. And yet, I cannot dismiss the film. It’s infuriating and smug. But perhaps that’s the point? It sticks with you though – that’s for sure.
What we really didn’t need in Vice though is the opening segment of the movie, about Cheney’s wild younger days – when he was thrown out of college for drinking, and gathered a few DUI, before his future wife, Lynne (Amy Adams) straightens him out. Or really the scenes of him as a congressional aide to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) where it becomes clear that they don’t actually believe in much of anything except power for the sake of power. The scenes are of some interest if you know nothing about Cheney’s time before becoming VP – but for the most part, it’s all rather paint by numbers stuff – and lacks the cleverness that McKay can bring.
The reason you show up for the movie is to see the Bush years – and the movie is both more interesting in this part, and also more annoyingly smug. The movie makes it clear that Cheney saw an opportunity to essentially become President without actually having to win an election. The movie views Bush as an idiot, who doesn’t even realize that Cheney is essentially offering to do anything worth doing as President away from him – and also able to manipulate the President with a short whisper in his ear. It’s such an easy and cheap narrative that I’m surprised McKay went with it at all. Surprisingly, Oliver Stone’s underrated W. thinks more highly of Bush than Vice does – that movie I think came closer than anything else to capturing George W. Bush – an average man, from a famous family, who gets in way over his head – with disastrous consequences for all involved.
What I thought was missing from Vice – what all the cleverness and jokes and smug asides, and fine performances paper over – is that the movie never really understands why Cheney did anything he did. It seems like the movie believes than Cheney simply believed in power for power’s sake – that he wasn’t an ideologue in the least, then he no real beliefs at all other than to get power, and keep it by any means necessary. This doesn’t quite work for several reasons (including what the film portrays as Cheney’s betrayal of his daughter, after he stood by her for decades – a move I thought was unfair, and seems to be based on nothing). But perhaps it was the only way for McKay to tar Trump with the same brush as Cheney. In terms of ideology, the two are very different – Trump has attacked the Bush administration frequently, and the Republican party is over those years.
There is a great movie to be made about this time in American history – but we haven’t gotten it yet. I do think Stone’s W. is an underrated film – but even that one was basically a great portrait of W. himself, but not of very much around him. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bush years become as documented in film as Richard Nixon has become in the decades since his administration ended. But for now, we have to settle for a film like Vice. I didn’t much like it – it angered and frustrated me. It also kept me engaged, and thinking about it long after it ended. Take that for whatever you think it’s worth.

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