Perspective is the key to any comprehensive study of a historical figure – anyone tackling such an endeavor has to consider whether there is enough distance and hindsight to properly contextualize the person’s actions and role in the scheme of history. When Oliver Stone made W. in 2008, one key criticism – among the myriad – was proximity; we were still in the midst of George W. Bush’s time in power, and so the film manufactured a perspective that wasn’t actually there. Vice arrives a full decade later, certainly enough time to weigh consequences, feel the historic impact, and opine on the meaning of it all. Oddly enough, though, Adam McKay’s film announces its central problem in a title card before the images even start to flicker, admitting the film is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history. But we did our fucking best.” So encapsulates the ensuing 130 minutes: a self-admission that this enterprise is devoid of any legitimate depth, but at least it’s spiked with some smirking humor.
As a result of its core fallacy, Vice is constantly caught in the middle – of tones, of styles, of basic theses. It pitches itself as a comprehensive tell-all; a juicy, epic cataloging of the Bush-Cheney administration’s atrocities, but that doesn’t square with its simultaneous framing as a singular character study of Cheney the person. It opens with a young Cheney getting pulled over for drunk driving and ends with a defiant Cheney addressing the audience directly, refusing to apologize for his actions and claiming to have been chosen by the people to serve, but in between offers no discernible argument for how this man transitioned from young drunkard to unilateral warmonger. That lack of connective tissue results in a narrative that leaps indiscriminately from one major event to the next, a scattershot ticking of the standard political outrage boxes with no perspective any deeper than a standard riff on the “Cheney ran the whole damn thing” angle.
Christian Bale plays Cheney, in another of his patented physical transformations, and he also nails the former Vice President’s basic cadence, from posture to speech patterns. But without any consistent thematic substance to gird his performance, eventually it starts to just feel like a really good impersonation. Same goes for Sam Rockwell’s take on George W. Bush, whose screen time the film is limited to a series of wing-eating, aww-shucks-ing moronism without probing the unwitting, and the willful, relinquishing of power. Amy Adams gives the film’s most intriguing performance as Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife, on whom McKay’s screenplay goes down a few different motivational avenues, from scarred victim to stolid judgmental leviathan to complicit power consolidator. None of these iterations are consistent and none follow through to any grand catharsis, but they make me interested in what a cohesive film starring Amy Adams might explore about Lynne Cheney. All of these wonderful actors do their best, but the film leaves them in a position where they are encouraged to aim for caricature while it strains to reach any dramatic conclusions beyond basic mockery.
As he did with his Oscar-winning The Big Short, McKay brings an admirably punk filmmaking vibe to Vice, a willful eschewing of traditional form that is imbued with arch, self-referential humor. The problem here – as it was, frankly, in The Big Short, too – is that he’s unable to control his own chaos. There are so many stylistic and narrative subversions that eventually the film loses sight of what it’s trying to subvert. It employs one device after another, layer upon layer of quirks that divert us from the fact that the film has no clue what it really wants to be, nor how to be it. Jesse Plemons shows up as a fourth-wall-breaking narrator of incredibly strained relevance who fills in paragraphs’ worth of details the film is otherwise unsure how to depict, making inferences so painfully obvious and self-satisfied it feels like some faux early-aughts Michael Moore clone. Symbolism is abundant throughout the film, edited into countless sequences with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, culminating in a finale of imagery that is cut together in the hopes it will function as a grand summation of all that’s come before, but it’s really just a flickering of disparate shots from scenes that already fell flat.
That’s not to suggest there isn’t value within this material, or that McKay should abandon his go-for-broke methods; to the contrary, this type of cinematic anarchy can work if it’s harnessed to a clarified idea. But Vice lacks a unifying principle – there’s no through-line connecting anything thematically. The closest it comes to any coalescing notion is the so-called Unitary Executive Theory, which basically posits that if the president does it, it can’t be illegal. But of course, Cheney wasn’t the president, and the film is just content to show the highlights of his schemes rather than probe the Machiavellian ways in which he subverted the actual Chief Executive to wrest away and maintain absolute governmental power. In a 130-minute epic of a character study, we learn nothing especially new or revelatory about what drove Cheney’s actions, what fueled his megalomania, his undermining of norms and institutions. And so the card at the beginning of the film is proven true: perhaps they did their fucking best, but it may be impossible to truly know Dick Cheney, and Vice’s ultimate failure is even trying.