“Vice” is screening at the State Theatre in Ann Arbor through mid January.
By Andrew Warrick
Featured photo via Annapurna Pictures
“Vice,” written and directed by Adam McKay, tells the story of Dick Cheney’s political career, from his first job in the Nixon administration, all the way to his tenure as vice president under George Bush. Both his politics and their consequences are a murky, far reaching web, that the film traverses with gravitas and effect, though not always with clarity. The entire cast is excellent, with Sam Rockwell as Bush being a particularly funny highlight. Every character is a fascinating addition to this twisted story, one that switches from hilarity to horror at the flip of a dime. It’s modern politics, after all.
Of course, crooked politicians are a current pop culture staple. What makes “Vice” different, and so much more affecting than a show like “Veep,” is the human cost that McKay brings to the table. Political decisions are directly intercut with their consequences, such as a scene depicting the bombing of Iraq as seen from a family cowering under their kitchen table. However entertaining the political intrigue is, McKay constantly reminds the viewer that it is drenched in blood.
Christian Bale is the lynchpin of the film, and his turn as Cheney is an astounding transformation that is sure to catch attention come Oscar season. There are moments when the sheer soullessness of the character becomes distressingly apparent — when Bale looks directly into the camera, eyes full of seething ambition. However brutal it depicts Cheney, though, it never becomes one dimensional. He’s a family man deep down, and at one point even turns against his conservative “values” to protect a member of his family.
As well drawn as Cheney is, however, he is kept at a distance. We see his actions and their consequences, but never any concrete reasons for them. This is because McKay is hesitant to add reasoning that is not objectively proven. Consequently, the film rarely deals with Cheney’s motivations. In one of the film’s numerous epigraphs, it admits that Cheney was a private person, saying something along the lines of “we did our best” to show the truth without adding too much fiction. The film covers how driven and powerful Cheney is, yet his shift from drunken nobody to political snake happens almost out of the blue. Historical accuracy aside, more explanation is needed for the viewer to truly understand how and why Cheney did what he did.
McKay’s direction also tends to get in the way of the film’s story, in the form of obnoxious satire. McKay’s script is a scattered, shotgun blast of a narrative where, especially at the beginning, events are shown out of sequence and tend to be interrupted by unnecessary, thematic diversions. The film is chock-full of narrative gimmicks, like fourth wall breaking, lengthy tangents for the sake of a political point and metaphors that are directly spelled out, even in text and voiceover.
There are times when the film veers away from the story completely, such as a montage using current news footage. This lack of focus does nothing but bog the film down. It attempts the prescience that Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” achieved so well, but without the streamlined, focused approach. If McKay would have stuck to his story and the incredible performances, his messages would have been more evident (and more focused). The metaphors and direct political commentary do nothing but reiterate messages the viewer should pick up on themselves.
Notwithstanding its bloated implementation, the satire is still affecting. It draws the viewer through an enthralling world of uproarious political banter, shadowy backroom dealings and intense, “situation room” events like the hours after the 9/11 attacks. “Vice” is at its best when it is in the trenches, and the viewer is offered a behind-the-curtain look at some of this century’s most impactful decisions. The film pulls no punches in its depiction of Cheney’s actions during his turn as VP, and he morphs from a protagonist to something quite sinister.
The viewer will leave informed, and possibly quite galvanized.
Some will likely see “Vice” as compromised by liberal bias, a critique directly addressed by the film in one of its countless “meta” sojourns. Someone near the end of the film wonders if in today’s day and age, it’s liberal to simply state facts. They’re then tackled by a Trump supporter, in a sadly honest portrayal of today’s politics. If honesty is “liberal,” “Vice” wears it on its sleeve.
233 S. State St., Ann Arbor
Showing through at least Jan. 10
Andrew Warrick is a student at the University of Michigan. He is majoring in creative writing and history, and is a part of the Residential College. He also leads the RC’s Creative Writing Forum. When not watching movies, he loves hanging out with friends, especially in the spectacular Ann Arbor, becoming addicted to novels, and listening to Bowie records. Some of his favorite movies are “Cloud Atlas,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Alien.”