Antipathy for the Devil
Film review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Vice, a satirical portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is the type of motion picture that might elicit ten distinct responses from ten viewers. Or perhaps multiples of ten. I know that for this reviewer the film both fascinated and confounded in numerous and conflicting ways.
Written and directed by Adam McKay, who received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his 2015 film The Big Short, the experience of watching Vice depends upon where the viewer stands politically and how they feel about the course this nation has charted over the last twenty or thirty years. If you feel incensed about the state of our country or its politics, this movie will stoke those flames. If you feel more conflicted about these matters, especially since 9/11, the film becomes more of a confusing rollercoaster.
Adam McKay has evolved from a comedic writer and filmmaker of some repute, responsible for much-loved comedies like Talladega Nights and The Other Guys, to a bolder storyteller with a penchant for taking risks. The Big Short’s unique way of mining serious, real-life material (the housing crisis of 2008) for comedy without demeaning the tragic consequences came off as audacious and fresh.
Digging into the scowling, ultra-conservative Cheney and his family for jokes seems equally bold and leads to some bizarre but hilarious moments. In one scene Cheney and his loyal but forceful wife, played with measured steel by Amy Adams (an Oscar nominee for her performance), engage in bedroom repartee about seizing power using Shakespearean language. Elsewhere, the film pauses, just before Cheney is invited by George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) to become his running mate, to imagine what might have followed if he had said no—to the point of running fake end credits a full hour from the actual end of the film.
The very effectiveness of these scenes, though, becomes a burden Vice never shakes. They come off as oddball riffs, speculative flights of the imagination. But the film stands them up them alongside gritty depictions of things that did happen—the terrorist attacks on our country, the war in Iraq and some of its terrifying collateral damage, Abu Ghraib prison, waterboarding. The results are jarring and induce a kind of mental whiplash.
There are also numerous moments where Vice tries to create a bridge between the Bush administration’s manipulation of power, of which Dick Cheney is widely regarded as the prime mover, and the present fraught political environment. But aside from inserting journalistic images of things like border walls and right-leaning political rallies here and there, the film never adequately establishes this connection. The operating assumption seems to be that viewers are already on the same page as the filmmakers.
Vice is also unable to penetrate below the surface of Cheney as a real person. This may be an impossibility, but the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways. They cast the remarkable Christian Bale as the former vice president, and his disappearance into the role both physically and, seemingly, psychologically, is astonishing. While Bale indisputably nails Cheney’s coldness, tell-tale smirk, and well-known ability to cast a dismissive light upon his ideological opponents, there are also moments in Vice where the man’s tenderness towards his wife and daughters in particular will surprise and maybe even move you.
Bale’s own motives seem muddled, though. In a promotional video released late last year, he insists that he approached the role as much as possible “from a positive point of view.” “What would you do if you had that power?” he asks reasonably. “The goal of any film is . . . conversation.” Yet last month, when Bale received a Golden Globe Award for his performance, he thanked “Satan” for “inspiration.” This seems to undermine any authentic effort to portray Cheney objectively.
Vice is a bold, well-made film that raises numerous disturbing questions, but also provokes frustration. In a striking final act, the filmmakers attempt to hold up a mirror to the nation, suggesting that both the political extremes of the 2000’s decade and their lingering effects are something for which we all are culpable. But the scene cannot quite diffuse a whiff of a sort of “I told you so” self-congratulation, something its eight Oscar nominations will hardly diffuse.
Consequently, Vice may make you laugh, it may make blind you with rage—but one thing it won’t do is give you much hope that long-standing ideological conflicts in this country are drawing any nearer to resolution.
Photo credits by: flickeringmyth.com,Wik ipedia.com and usatoday.com
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.