McKay has made the angriest, silliest, and most divisive film of 2018
With Vice, Adam Mckay (Step Brothers, The Big Short) has delivered a hyperactive, ambitious, often ill-conceived film, surely to be the most divisive Oscar-bait of the year. McKay starts in 1960s Wyoming, where Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is being busted for drinking and driving, and finishes decades later, with Cheney (still Christian Bale) fully transformed into the architect of doom known world-wide. Along the way is a relentless slapdash of metaphors, narration, real-life footage, and fourth-wall breaking that mostly clouds, rather than enhances, the experience.
It’s as though, motivated by the approval of The Big Short, McKay doubled (or tripled) down on his storytelling approach, abandoning all subtlety in favour of blunt force. There is an excellent film to be made about the Cheney legacy, and it may even be hidden within Vice, if it could have channelled its valid rage into something more coherent. In attempting a mix of straight biopic, satire, and history lesson, McKay simply tries too hard.
Tonal shifts aside, the biggest problem with Vice is that even at its best it’s hard to decipher what the film wants to say about Cheney or the American people. The motives of the film, it’s subject, and it’s targets are never clear, despite all of the narrative tricks McKay deploys to both educate and skewer its audience. Surely, the public and media have a responsibility in keeping government accountable, but it’s not entirely clear what point McKay is trying to make.
As known well before Vice, Dick Cheney is not a nice man and he did many bad things. A shadowy figure with a penchant for ruthlessness, he consolidated and abused power like few before him and among his more odious acts as Vice President, orchestrated an invasion of Iraq under false pretences resulting in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and over half a million Iraqis. This is all historical record so in Vice, director Adam McKay’s challenges are confronting Cheney’s record and answering the question “who is Dick Cheney?”. In all of the messy, tonally confused excess that is Vice, McKay somewhat succeeds at overcoming those challenges, though Cheney’s humanity, or even what makes him tick, remains unestablished.
Vice is perhaps most at its most potent conveying that centralization of power, moral corruption, and contempt for the law, among other features of modern American government, appeared long before President Trump. Government institutions have been intentionally weakened over time by successive administrations, and the methods by which power is exerted grow clumsier and more devoid of empathy as years pass. After all, Cheney did all of his learning on the job – a job that voters gave him.