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Review: Oscar-nominated Vice

Director Adam McKay has no fear in underestimating his audience's intelligence, says Ciaran Brass

Photo Credit: Entertainment One


Director: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell

Length: 2hr 12min

Rating: 15

Somewhat predictably, Vice has found itself among the pack of films gunning for Oscar glory this February. Boasting a stellar cast, topical and incendiary subject matter, and the withering eye of writer/director Adam McKay (whose previous film The Big Short was a star-studded takedown profiling those who benefited from the tanking of the US housing market), it seemed destined to be the type of film that Academy voters would reward amply. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney is perhaps the most visible and egregious villain of the 2000s—critics often point to his and George W. Bush’s disastrous 8 years in power as the teleological endpoint of American neoconservatism, with far-reaching and unintentional consequences too plentiful to enumerate. 

Over his past two films, director Adam McKay seems to have made a conscious decision to depart from farcical Will Ferrell vehicles of the 2000s such as Anchorman and Stepbrothers and reinvent his career portraying and critiquing historical events of the 21st century from a centre-left perspective. With the relative critical and commercial success of The Big Short, the audience may assume that Vice is in a safe pair of hands.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, this is not the case. From the outset, McKay seems committed to simultaneously infantilising his audience and employing erratic, bizarre narrative devices—we’re subjected to an abundance of freeze-frames, deadpan narration, back and forth time skips and invasive stock images, all before the title card drops 15 minutes into the film. The resulting effect is akin to watching a Year 11 student come to grips with using PowerPoint. At one point in an opening montage, we’re told by disaffected narrator Kurt (a bored and wasted Jesse Plemons) that audiences don’t want or need complex political analysis. Accompanying this patronising line of thought is an image of young woman at a festival, clearly blitzed out of her mind on some substance or another. What sort of message does this send about McKay’s feelings towards his audience?

This pattern of underestimating the audience’s intelligence continues throughout the film. Narration, montages, and onscreen text are often used to convey the same piece of information multiple times. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) merely laughs when Cheney asks what they actually believe in, a nasty, nihilistic scene that runs directly contrary to the rest of the film, which goes to great pains to portray Cheney as a methodical, dogged believer in The Cause. A pivotal meeting between Cheney and prospective presidential candidate George W. Bush is intercut with a painfully obvious visual metaphor of Cheney baiting and reeling in a fish. McKay pitches wildly between this sort of juvenile visual storytelling and genuinely bewildering editing decisions. One such example is the juxtaposition of President Bush’s nervous toe-tapping while reading a speech off a teleprompter, with the shaking foot of an Iraqi man crouched under his dining table while missiles rain down on Baghdad.

McKay has assembled an impressive cast for the film—it’s a pity the material they’re given isn’t a match for their considerable talents. At this point of his career, Christian Bale is infamous for his extreme commitment to transforming his body for certain roles. His commitment to Dick Cheney’s mannerisms is equally impressive, matching the politician’s stilted manner of speech, slumping posture, and uneven, irritated smirk. The makeup team also deserves recognition for making Cheney’s hair, wrinkles, and liver-spotted hands convincing. Cheney’s motivation beyond nebulous conceptions of buzz terms like “power” is unclear, and isn’t enough to make him an engaging antihero.

It’s pretty much the same story for the rest of the cast. Amy Adams is one of the most brilliant and multitalented actresses of her generation—here, her performance as Lynne Cheney is disappointingly two-note, swinging between hysteria or an unconvincing ice queen act. She is also saddled with some of the film’s worst clunkers; a particular favourite being “When you have power, people will always try to take it away from you.” Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of George W. Bush wouldn’t be out of place on Saturday Night Live. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld is somewhat better. At the very least he’s having fun, and although he’s gifted with some similarly unwieldy lines as Adams, he manages to portray some of Rumsfeld’s more misanthropic tendencies with a certain savage pleasure. I must admit I didn’t even realise Tyler Perry was in the film as Secretary of State Colin Powell, which I suppose is a testament to his decent and inoffensive performance.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of Vice is its inability to follow through on a coherent message. One of the film’s best scenes sees Cheney listing out the various structures of government he’s installed “his people.” In this scene, McKay trusts the audience to understand the apogee and breadth of American neoconservative power, and how exactly Cheney and Bush were able to bypass regulations in order to abuse power.

Narrator Kurt compares Cheney’s decision-making to stacking multiple cups and saucers on top of each other. At some point, the cups and saucers come tumbling down, but McKay hardly acknowledges the future consequences that result from Cheney’s “unitary executive” theory. Possibly, this is out of deference to President Obama, who extended and enhanced surveillance begun by the Patriot Act, reneged on closing Guantanamo Bay, continued the policy of regime change with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and authorised the extrajudicial killings of citizens of other nations via drone strike. If McKay’s theory is how Cheney’s abuse of power mired the United States in many of its current messes, he must acknowledge the subsequent presidential missteps. Cheney, after all, was not the intellectual godfather of neoconservatism; just its most effective agent.

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