Vice is a movie about being a movie about Dick Cheney. The most powerful vice president in history, Cheney should be in irons before The Hague for his role in finding intelligence that justified his obsession with invading Iraq. A few hundred thousand men and women died in the Middle East thanks to the Bush administration. Yet Vice is neither tract nor comedy but a repugnant medley: writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) should’ve had an ape shit JFK on his hands instead of an un-gonzo pop-up book infatuated with its own cynicism. Don’t blame me — you voted for the prick is McKay’s posture. In a season of disappointments and garbage, Vice is the worst yet.
Using a framing device in which Jesse Plemons inexplicably plays narrator and chorus (“How does a man go on to become what he is?”) until a moronic endgame reveal, Vice depicts how an unexceptional student with the charisma of a spatula survives a couple of DUIs and heart troubles that, alas, haven’t resulted in his death ascends three times to the heights of executive power, creating new standards for that power. By his side stands Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), conceived by McKay as the Lady Macbeth of Caspar. Nose a-quiver on the scent of patrons in the late sixties, a young Dick finds an Illinois congressman named Donald Rumsfeld, who sees in the taciturn schemer a pupil. As Rumsfeld himself rises to become Richard Nixon’s head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and, after Watergate, one of the last Republican men standing, he and Cheney form a tag team when Ford chooses Rummy as chief of staff, the ripest of Washington plums. For once Steve Carrell’s fake hardiness works for a character instead of as serving as distraction; he makes this smiling, immoral pig a vivid cartoon.
Ford, of course, loses the 1976 election, leaving Cheney jobless until he runs for Wyoming’s lone congressional seat, in which position Cheney, in the Republican’s forty-year winter of legislative powerlessness, learns Washington ways enough to return to the executive branch as Poppy Bush’s secretary of defense and bearer of the most terrifying comb-over in Virginia. What those ways are McKay never explains, a fascinating development given to what degree Vice can’t shut up. It’s forever explaining in garish ways, like Plemons in voice-over explaining the unitary executive theory while a montage of Antonin Scalia and cheetahs flashes before our startled eyes, or when McKay underlines Rumsfeld’s villainy by having Dick exclaim, “But that’s impossible! That needs approval by Congress!” FORESHADOWING. McKay also studied SYMBOLISM in school: there’s a scene in which Cheney on a fishing trip treads an icy river with the careful gait of a bear trawling for salmon because, after all, Cheney never made a misstep, do you see. My choice for most piquant expositional dialogue: “I adore Reagan, but no one has yet shown the world the true power of the American presidency.” Nor had Cobra Commander.
The rest of this story snaps into place: chosen as George W. Bush’s veep after heading the committee that was supposed to pick one, he becomes the center of power in Washington during those 2001-2004 Dark Ages, which the Trump era has yet to surpass in mendacity married to ruthlessness. He gives the okay to torture. He scares the shit out of Tim Russert. His only bother is looking across the table in a Cabinet meeting and seeing Tyler Perry as Colin Powell. Vice suggests that Cheney had a instinct for approaching vacuums he could fill with his risible theories; as played by Sam Rockwell in a performance as oafish as his Oscar-blessed turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Bush is a cheerful moron who, thanks to the Supreme Court, was installed as president because like his dad he thought it was his turn.
To praise the cast for its efforts is to praise the car for getting us to the grocery store. Americans have a contempt for actors unless these professionals make a show of strenuousness; the Oscars reward Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep for weight gains and accents, not Cary Grant and Jeff Bridges for smiling and charming us, and if they do they have to be prodded. As Lynne Cheney, Amy Adams reprises her tough mama performance from The Master and crossbreeds it with Reese Witherspoon’s steely enthusiasm from Election. Christian Bale gets the fearsome half smirk and the Melba toast delivery; he “disappears into” the role, all right. Duplicating the mannerisms of a person who relished quashing his humanity in public spaces is a meager achievement; reminding audiences that the person who brought the same technocratic gleam to the defense of his daughter and to ordering the Pentagon on 9-11 to shoot down any commercial planes still in the air causes no chill of recognition, nor does the strenuousness bring us any closer than a Saturday Night Live sketch to acknowledging our culpability in expanding the contours of executive power — and the SNL sketch isn’t too far from McKay’s origins, recall.
Some posters on social media have argued that we shouldn’t watch films about evil people like Vice, but the problem is not that McKay made a film about Dick Cheney — the problem is it’s a conventional biopic enchained to facts such that it becomes a reactionary piece of film making. Lacking the imagination to create Kabuki overstatement, unaware of the possibility that a part of his wretched life could stand for the whole, Vice even fails to make The Death of Stalin‘s meager standard. An early scene in which a young Dick, as an electric company field guy, impassively watches an injured coworker writhe in pain after falling off a pole is weighed just right. McKay’s yokel of a movie points and laughs at us yokels. An approach like Citizen Kane or Rashomon‘s might have at least kept Vice from ossifying into admiration for the man’s plodding, deadly will. By dotting every chronological i, McKay’s film normalizes Dick Cheney’s arc. Vice reminds me of what Trotsky in an essay about Louis-Ferdinand Céline disgusted him about French president Raymond Poincaré’s memoirs, what he calls “the cult of lucidity…the condescending sense of superiority with which an old master explains the precepts of his craft.”
A more legitimate question is, who is this movie for? Academy members in need of liberal self-congratulation? Fans of cinema whose idea of risk is to regard Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as a model? If Cheney is a model of what the American political system will tolerate — encourage — then Vice is the same for what Hollywood will tolerate in comedy, politics, and the ambitions of little men.