Though, by the opening’s own admission, many of these details within this narrative are unverifiable, the team claimed they did their best. Yale University dropout Dick Cheney entered the political world in 1969 when he became a White House intern during the Nixon Administration. After many decades of various political aspirations, including being Wyoming’s sole representative, he finds a new opportunity knocking at his door when George W. Bush, the son of George H.W. Bush, is running for president and chooses Cheney as his running mate.
Vice is one of many politically-charged films of 2018. While many sought to directly or indirectly criticize the then-current presidential administration, Vice took a look at the past. Dick Cheney, the forty-sixth vice president of the United States, proved quite a controversial figure throughout the 2000s. During the Bush Administration, he was anomalously active. By many political figures’ own admission, Vice President was considered a joke position with the person holding it just waiting around for their boss to die. Cheney didn’t do this; through careful political maneuvering, he wielded power in two different branches with nobody to overrule his decisions.
Dick Cheney is portrayed by Christian Bale, and I have to say the transformation is astonishing. While his younger depictions don’t resemble the real-life Cheney during those times, his 2000s portrayal is dead-on accurate. I had absolutely no idea who it was until I read the cast listing. Even after learning of his involvement, I assumed he was playing George W. Bush. Mr. Bale had proven himself quite the chameleon over the years, but this performance was particularly impressive. I’m certain that most people watching this film at the time would have assumed they got a body double to play the former vice president.
Having been made by Adam McKay, an avid supporter of the Democratic Party, Dick Cheney gets a very interesting portrayal in this film. The narrative doesn’t outright state whether or not Cheney’s actions are the result of a well-intentioned, if woefully misguided desire to keep his citizens safe or a lust for power. Nonetheless, it doesn’t shy away from the highly destructive, horrifying things that happen as a result of his campaigns. At the same time, he’s shown to be fiercely loyal to those he cares about. He clearly loves his wife Lynne, but his most endearing moment is how he handles his daughter’s biggest secret. That is to say, she’s a lesbian. He makes it clear right there and then that he will stick by her no matter what. Given that someone with his moral beliefs would be far more likely to leave her homeless, this is genuinely admirable.
Though this is a genuinely heartfelt moment, it’s ruined with what follows afterwards. The film appears to end, playing sappy music while claiming Cheney would never enter politics again. Given the name of the film and the fact that it came out roughly ten years after President Bush left the White House, nobody is going to fall for this joke, which defeats the purpose of telling it in the first place. Adam McKay used a similar joke in The Big Short, but he was dealing with more obscure subject matter, which could have tricked people into believing the false premise. The fake credits gag, on the other hand, is dead on arrival. When this occurred, I found myself impatiently waiting for the film to finish reveling in how clever it was so it could move on.
Indeed, for a comedy-drama, a majority of the jokes end up falling flat. The opening narration appears to be a standard “This is based on a true story” disclaimer, and then it uses an expletive because that’s hilarious. There is also one scene in which Dick and Lynne lapse into iambic pentameter after the narrative suggests it’s unlikely the fateful conversation that led to him being George W. Bush’s running mate was Shakespearian in nature. To comedians, this would be like revealing the punchline before telling your joke.
The only real comedic element I enjoyed was Sam Rockwell’s portrayal as George W. Bush. To put it bluntly, President Bush is portrayed in Vice as a hapless dupe who goes along with everything Cheney says and clearly doesn’t understand half of what is occurring around him. He’s essentially along for the ride along with the audience. At the same time, it’s a rather tired joke. During the 2000s, President Bush was subject to no shortage of jokes poking fun at his intelligence, and while it is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, they still come across as extremely dated.
In fact, I think one of the bigger problems with Vice is that it doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. It handles fairly serious subject matter throughout, yet the jokes are so predictable that they typically don’t illicit laughter. In this regard, Vice reminds me a lot of You’re Next in that its inability to settle on a tone is the source of its downfall. Had it focused entirely on the comedy aspects, it would have had the potential to be one of the most darkly hilarious films in years. On the other hand, its subject matter would have lent itself to a naturally compelling drama, and Mr. McKay feeling the need to tell jokes every five minutes lest the audience gets bored actively sabotages his own goal.
Given its many missteps, it’s not terribly surprising that Vice doesn’t stick the landing well either. It ends with Cheney breaking the fourth wall, apologizing for nothing and only doing what the audience expected him to do. These kinds of developments have to be handled with care, as there’s a fine line between challenging your audience and outright belittling them. Unfortunately, Mr. McKay doesn’t skirt the line as much as he blows right past it in a sports car, having removed the brakes beforehand for good measure. The film had begun fairly hostile to its own audience at the beginning when it depicted people having the temerity to enjoy their leisure time instead of being serious all the time, but this speech really pushed it over the edge.
It doesn’t help that the speech is eventually followed up with a stinger. In it, a right-wing member accuses the film of being left-wing propaganda, causing a left-wing member to get in a fight with him. A neutral onlooker merely says he’s going to see the next installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise. I don’t enjoy using the word “pretentious” because I think it’s overused to the point of meaninglessness, but that is exactly how I would describe this sequence. Mr. McKay’s work already reeked of egotistical posturing with its obnoxious editing and in-your-face brand of storytelling, yet showing this fight and possibly having the observer representing an average filmgoer with long-atrophied taste buds was horribly self-indulgent and condescending even by its own standards.
At the end of the day, Vice is too much of an unfocused, self-indulgent mess to recommend to most people. I could only realistically envision someone who is so vehemently opposed to Dick Cheney and everything he represents getting anything out of it – and even then, there’s no guarantee this hypothetical person would actually admire it. In fact, I feel the primary reason Vice fails to deliver is because it is paradoxically heavy-handed without being able to make a coherent point. It claims Cheney was a greedy, power-hungry individual, but anyone who cracked open a history book could have determined that. With its obnoxious presentation and general inability to take its audience seriously, Vice doesn’t have anything substantial to offer other than reaffirming the beliefs of those who were on board with what it had to say in the first place.
Final Score: 3/10