The title of Adam McKay’s latest feature, VICE, sets the stall out early. Ostensibly a biopic of Dick Cheney, often characterised as the Dubya administration’s evil overlord (or perhaps it’s best known unknown to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld), shortening his official title to the maleficent double entendre leaves no doubt as to the standpoint. Weaving commentary and comedy together, the end result is a very enjoyable but simplistic and shallow analysis that feels caught between two approaches.
Although a frequently funny and inventive film, bolstered by Christian Bale in full transformation mode, the film has a scat-jazz approach to political commentary. Combined with a frequent lack of subtlety, the end effect is more that of an irritating bark than much real bite; a curious hybrid of biopic and high-brow SNL skit.
The film takes a largely chronological approach, tracking Cheney’s earlier days labouring in Wyoming through to his recent more exploits, but frequently shifts back and forth in order to impart some degree of parallel or influence of events on Cheney’s thoughts or actions. Much like McKay’s THE BIG SHORT (or ANCHORMAN, for that matter), a voiceover (Jesse Plemons) frames the narrative and provides much meta-commentary on the subject.
The effect of this is mixed, with some highlighting the degree of removal and level of dispassion characterising Cheney’s decision making. Alfred Molina as a waiter eloquently laying out the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques for Cheney and his cronies to order enthusiastically (“We’ll take all of it!”) is a highlight, but other aspects are far less clever. Cheney’s 2012 heart transplant is lingered on until the metaphor of being ‘heartless’ is shot and framed to the point of eye-rolling obviousness.
The editing and collage-like structure, although designed to show how Cheney’s outlook evolved over the years whilst retaining key objectives and causal links, is the main culprit in this lack of subtlety. The opening pre-credits section of the film is edited like a music video, with quick jumps back and forth in time and location trying to give a quick impression of the breadth of Cheney’s impact. When there is little coherence, particularly in the initial stages of the film, it becomes necessary to fall back on obvious Republican-bashing and villainy role-calls: Roger Ailes and Antonin Scalia are name-checked in brief roles and George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) play supporting roles in buffoon-failing-upward mode. As with so much of VICE, these are amusing but lacking in any real depth. The exception to this is Bale’s central performance as Cheney, an extremely dedicated one that commands screen attention. A fourth-wall breaking segment is arresting not only because of the direct address, but also Bale’s captivating speech where so much has been done, up to that point, through tiny expressions whilst looking thoughtfully at his lap or desk.
“…it becomes necessary to fall back on obvious Republican-bashing and villainy role-calls [and] these are amusing but lacking in any real depth.”
If one thread can be identified as running through all of these vignettes, it would be Cheney’s belief in Unitary Executive Theory: the idea that if a US President does something, it is by definition legal, and the opinion – even scarier in 2018 – that “until now, no-one has really demonstrated the true power of the American presidency”. Had the film grabbed on to this idea, a terrifying thought couched in boring legalistic congressional language, it is easy to see how an approach like THE BIG SHORT would work. That film’s major strength was taking a fundamentally boring, non-cinematic subject and lacing it with enough satire and knowing irony to bring laughs at how much power was unknowingly wielded despite the idiocy of all involved. Taking the same approach to highlight the war-mongering and utter shitbaggery of individuals, outwardly preaching a desire for prosperity and peace, in that era of American politics could also work.
However, VICE seems to find itself caught between two stools: irreverent satire of the man, and a ‘worthy’ film reverent of the biopic format. Numerous segments feel more at home in the latter, such as Cheney apologising to Lynne early in their marriage and his early relationship with Rumsfeld. Nicholas Britell’s music in many segments is excellent – particularly a depiction of a drunk Cheney, in his Colorado days, driving home – lending a sense of foreboding to these formative moments. These weave together to play as straight-faced narratives, and clash against the more surreal and winking sections, interleaved all the more jarringly because of the kaleidoscopic approach. Whether this same comedic approach to the architects of the Patriot Act, Iraq war, torture, and callous isolationism is really appropriate can be debated, but VICE certainly does not hit all of its targets anyway.
“VICE is a blunt object aspiring to be a precise satirical scalpel.”
There is much to enjoy in VICE, chiefly some stand out satirical segments and Bale’s central performance. However, these are uncharacteristically nuanced bolt-ons to a fundamentally simplistic – if stylistically flashy – portrait. For those of a liberal persuasion it is the same sugar-rush enjoyment garnered by Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression. For those of a conservative bent, it is easily countered by pointing to its bludgeoning caricatures. VICE is a blunt object aspiring to be a precise satirical scalpel.