Writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice comes along in the time of Trump to basically scream, “Hey, look, Republican leaders have been rotten long before President Cheeto!”
The film is supposed to feel like a punch to the gut, but nothing about it is particularly surprising except for Christian Bale’s transformational turn as Dick Cheney. Buried beneath pounds of prosthetic makeup — and his own body weight — he captures the politician’s insidiously destructive nature.
Vice opens with a sequence of a young Cheney drunkenly driving along a country road in Wyoming. McKay flashes back to this scene later in the film to remind us Cheney was reckless for many years before his time behind the wheel of the White House. Subtle.
After his future wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), reads him the riot act about his boozing, we join Cheney as he slowly rises through the ranks of the Republican Party. We see him serve as a congressional intern during the Nixon administration — his first taste of conservative corruption. He then follows fellow politico Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) through the corridors of power, eventually landing the role of vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, in what sadly amounts to a cameo).
This is where McKay geeks out and giddily shows us how Cheney was the Emperor Palpatine to Bush’s Darth Vader. There’s even a scene in which Cheney and Lynne speak in sinister Shakespearean verse, plotting their path to power like the Macbeths. You can practically hear McKay giggling as this plays out.
Vice reeks of self-satisfaction. As he drops one satirical bomb after another, McKay comes across as the kind of Facebook friend who posts so many political memes that you wonder whether they’ll ever be drained from angrily jizzing over jingoism and other extreme ideals they despise.
Here’s the thing: All of what he’s depicting warrants real anger. As McKay posits, Cheney’s aggressive attitude, shady backroom deals and post-9/11 opportunism paved the path for Trump and his cabinet of crooks. It’s maddening. But American society is already so saturated with vitriol that I found it exhausting to lift my head out of the muck and watch this film.
The best political satires are bracing. They pull you out of the abyss and let you know you’re not alone in thinking the world has gone mad. They make you feel relieved that someone is finally voicing out about the absurdity. Vice witlessly preaches to the choir. Near the end, it literally makes you stare at Cheney’s cold, dark heart as the character refuses to apologize for anything we saw in the previous two hours. “Our leaders are still fucked up, and it’s your fault for not being as woke as I am,” McKay says. Yeah, well, we hear that every goddamn day.
This film isn’t going to change any minds. Liberals will stew in anger while conservatives will stubbornly defend Cheney’s actions just as they stand by Trump’s for God knows why. McKay is stirring a pot that’s already boiling over but he thinks he’s making a grand, revelatory statement. The problem is that he’s not really starting a dialogue with anyone — he’s yelling into an echo chamber.
Back in 2008, Oliver Stone’s W. — which covers a lot of the same territory as Vice — felt audacious. It was a biting yet oddly empathetic portrait of a sitting POTUS who was on his way out as the least popular (up to that point) in modern history. It seemed like a swing for the fences and a film that could start a civil conversation. Vice feels insular, tired and late. (“Haha, Cheney had a lot of heart attacks,” the film blurts out. I remember when Saturday Night Live made that joke nearly 20 years ago.)
From fiery Facebook feeds to infuriating news footage, our screens are flooded with snark, cynicism and truth that’s already stranger than fiction. Vice never manages to transcend that on the big screen.