MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: L
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Former low-brow comedy director Adam McKay experienced enormous success in 2015 with The Big Short, an abrasive and clever comedy about the 2008 financial crisis. With Vice, it appears McKay hoped to return to that same magical well, but—as with so many sophomore efforts—the well has run dry.
It may be that McKay, who both wrote and directed the film, was doomed from the start. He admits in the opening credits that there “was little info” about the inner life of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). Thus, the film feels forced and fudged in many ways, much like its repudiation of Cheney.
McKay begins with two turning points in Cheney’s life, separated by forty years. The first occurs in 1963 when Cheney gets a DUI and a subsequent dressing down by his girlfriend and future wife Lynne (Amy Adams). The second unfolds in the first crucial hours after the second plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. In both instances, Cheney was able to step back, look at the bigger picture, and view a crisis as an opportunity for action.
The film then progresses chronologically, starting with his time as an intern to then Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), where he learns the fine art of secrecy, to eventually becoming one of the only Vice Presidents to hold significant political power. When the 9/11 attacks push America into its darkest hour since World War II, Cheney comes to believe that it is his duty to protect American citizens at any cost, even if that cost includes undermining their privacy, rights, and freedoms.
The phrase “the fog of war” refers to how a lack of information regarding the enemy and uncertainty about key facts makes battle plans difficult to predict and often leads to unexpected loss of life. For Cheney, there is a similar “fog of truth” he learned while watching Nixon’s downfall close-up, leading to a career in which information was closely guarded and almost immediately destroyed after use.
Unfortunately for McKay, this problem seriously affects the film’s potency. The Big Short was famous for its short vignettes with celebrity cameos used to explain complicated economic concepts. This worked well because McKay had great source material in Michael Lewis’ book, and his audience needed these scenes because most people don’t understand Wall Street. In Vice, similar scenes—while humorous—are forced, disjointed, and confused due to a lack of factual evidence.
The audience gets a sense that Cheney is working the system, but it’s so easy to see McKay’s handiwork that we don’t trust his presentation and analysis.
It’s this “obvious handiwork” that is Vice’s Achilles heel. Early on, McKay makes the assertion that cable news has an inherent bias to the right. While this may be true for FOX News, it completely ignores the left-wing bias so obvious in CNN and MSNBC programming. Vice is painfully blind to its own biased opinions, and McKay’s disdain for Cheney and right-wing policies is constantly evident. Consider, for example, how the single “good thing” Cheney does in the entire film is to support his daughter’s homosexuality, which is given an inordinate amount of screen time. McKay wants to be seen as fair, so he finds the one “progressive” element of Cheney’s personality and sells it hard.
There’s one analogy that McKay especially wishes to enforce: that Dick and Lynne Cheney are modern-day Macbeths. He is a quiet man of power and intrigue; she is the seductive voice that pushes him to do dark deeds. They even share a faux soliloquy while in bed together that ends in (gratefully ungraphic) sexual consummation. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to take seriously a message that is, well, a message and not an organic part of the story.
It’s not always necessary for a film to compliment an audience’s beliefs, and it is even healthy to engage opposing viewpoints. At the very least, it should always be honest about its intentions.
The picture of Cheney that emerges from Vice is not that of an inherently evil monster but of someone who was groomed from early on for underhanded deeds, who believed fiercely in his own worldview of protecting America, and who was willing bend any rule—divine or otherwise—to achieve his goals. Ultimately, this led to a series of rash decisions, made for manipulative reasons, that landed us in an unjust and unsuccessful war and continues to plague our nation today.
This picture may be partially correct, but again, it’s hard to trust the filmmakers.
Pope St. John Paul II said that his favorite Bible verse was John 8:32: “And you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” The late pontiff recognized that the 21st century is still living in a quasi-Orwellian world dominated by a power struggle to enforce competing interpretations of the truth. McKay has not provided the audience with the necessary evidence to back up his opinion. He did succeed, however, in getting me interested in Cheney’s life, driving me to check out his autobiography from my local library to see his side of the story.
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