Adam McKay isn’t a conventional director. Dick Cheney was far from a conventional pol or bureaucrat. With this in mind, moviegoers expecting a classic docudrama that paints a sympathetic portrait of its subject would be sorely disappointed. So would those expecting classic cinematography. But for the rest of us, Vice is gem if you can accept its clunky transitions and attempts at dark humor.
McKay is a comedy director who has always had a bit of a liberal slant. Some of his previous pictures have been just plain silly – his long collaboration with Will Ferrell has been his claim to fame prior to this picture. McKay and Ferrell collaborated on the Broadway play You’re Welcome America, a humorous and unsympathetic portrait of George W. Bush. Many of the themes of that production have been repeated a decade later in Vice.
With Vice however, McKay seems to have either made a picture that will define the next decade of political satire and documentaries or an outlier that will be looked back years from now as a unique picture that tried to interject lots of dark humor in a serious subject. Either way, Vice is worth seeing.
Since my audience isn’t the wider world, but pols and other politically aware people who read this website regularly, my take on Vice is different than it might have been if writing for the general public. You have to understand the subject, Dick Cheney, his closest ally Don Rumsfeld and the tensions of the Bush years to grasp the magnitude of this picture.
The picture covers Cheney’s rise in partnership with Rumsfeld and his wife, Lynne. Those cast to play the key figures in the film – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are superb. Bale and Carell in particular have all the subtle mannerisms of their subjects down.
It’s sometimes forgotten how dangerous Cheney was and how from a very early age he played to win. A man with little core conviction outside of accumulation and use of power, his behavior may well have set the tone for the wide sweep of authoritarianism we see globally these days. The relationship between Cheney and Rumsfeld is a key component of this picture and one of the most important relationships of contemporaries in modern American history. McKay has done the nation a service telling the story for a mass audience, albeit in a way that is humorous and perhaps for some, clunky.
McKay’s introduction to the film offers the reminder that Cheney’s secretiveness might lead to some slight inaccuracies in the film including how he and Lynne were thinking at key decision points. But importantly unlike, Oliver Stone’s W, this film, the second high-profile definitive theatrical look at the Bush years doesn’t constantly take famous quotes and place them out of context. It instead allows a narrator played by Jesse Plemons, fill in those parts of the story. This allows the film to avoid the obvious inaccuracies of Stone’s film while continuing to show how thoughtlessly evil Cheney and his cohorts were at times.
Cheney’s handling of his daughter Mary being LGBTQ is an underlying theme in the later portion of the film. It’s the only portion of the film that is sympathetic, but even this doesn’t take away from the overriding tone of the picture.
Vice is worth checking out this week in the theaters. Whether you agree with the assessment of Cheney or not (for the record, I do, but then again I am one of the few people remaining in America that sees the Bush/Cheney years as worse than the Trump presidency or any thing else I have seen in my lifetime) it’s sure to be thought-provoking AND make you laugh a little. That makes it well worth the price of admission.