‘Vice’ (2018) Review: Biopics This Damning Should Be More Riveting

By Steve Pulaski

Adam McKay’s Vice assumes the same style of filmmaking as his acclaimed, Oscar-nominated effort, The Big Short, doubling down on meta tactics and irreverent asides, all as a means to reiterate the same point — you don’t know a damn thing. What was once a creative, albeit flawed, spin has become stale, and this time around produces a messy, tonally incoherent project with a lot of great actors and performances as its mercy. Biopics this damning should be more riveting.

McKay’s Big Short was an effective film in the moment. Released during a year that saw Donald Trump announce his campaign for the presidency, it seemed to cap off a year, quite fitfully, that saw politics head straight for a tailspin and subsequently prove that most Americans do not have the slightest idea about how their government operates. I liked it when I saw it. I admired its intentions to explain the 2008 financial crisis to me like I was a moron because I felt there was indeed value in a mainstream comedy from a bankable name in the genre (the man behind Anchorman, after all) approaching politics with a cheeky screenplay and Family Guy-style diversions. It wasn’t the prettiest film of the year — nor was the fact that I deemed something like The Big Short as “valuable” to the culture a very nice indictment on our current state — but it was still an often blisteringly funny, infuriating work of contemporary political science.

With Vice, McKay aims to catch lightning in a bottle twice, adopting the same stylistic choices for one of the most scathing biographies of any figure in American history I’ve yet to see. Many people will be under the impression that Vice is intent on giving former Vice President Dick Cheney an honest look. That notion is like giving water to a drowning man. It doesn’t mean a thing.

A cinematic diss song of sorts that offers free smoke to one of the most unhinged and silently manipulative political figures in recent history, Vice shows how Cheney rose to power. The opening scene, set in the 1960s, shows him being arrested by a police officer for another DUI. His wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), accosts him for his frequently derelict behavior, as he’s proven to be nobody besides a drunken, career f***-up for most of his life, and gives him one more chance at redemption against her better judgment. Lynne knows that as a woman she’s not going to get anywhere, so to speak, without the financial stability of a man; she doesn’t have the luxury of climbing the corporate ladder as a total unknown like her husband eventually will.

So, Dick (played by Christian Bale in an Oscar-worthy, chameleon-like performance) changes his ways and gets a congressional internship, arbitrarily deciding to be a Republican after hearing a powerful, vulgar speech from then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in a chewy performance). Against the backdrop of the Nixon and Ford presidencies, Dick weasels his way into the tightest political circles, subtly transitioning from a dapper “yes” man to a one who embodies Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Him and Rumsfeld work together amidst the moral degradation of the 1970s, and following the Carter and H. W. years, are reunited when Cheney makes the most of a candid offer from George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his “vice.” Cheney, who said in the past that a Vice President’s title is symbolic at best, convinces Bush to grant him more power as the VP than history has seen. Must I then detail the aftermath of 9/11, Guantanamo Bay, the War on Terror, and the Patriot Act for you once more?

Vice is narrated by Jesse Plemons (Game NightThe Post), whose very presence you’ll smirk at and even appreciate his connectedness to the story, which I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Issues run rampant in McKay’s film, the most glaring being how Vice lacks any and all cohesion. The film hopscotches from significant event to personal detail in Cheney’s life, placing no value or emphasis on connecting it to a broader, more engrossing story. A little over a year ago, on my radio-show Sleepless with Steve, how the future of the theatrical biopic is in serious question due to its inability to compartmentalize and retain focus on a specific aspect of the life of a public figure and instead try to absorb all the details and events of one in a single movie. Vice, again, shows the modern failings of the genre, jumping from sequence-to-sequence, ineffectively capturing Cheney’s essence by never devoting a substantial amount of time to any era in his life.

We never see his upbringing. We do not understand how a man could go about life with such a monotone coldness to the world around him. His late-in-life views on keeping people safe and assuring Americans can expect peace in the morning when they wake up doesn’t resonate because we simply can’t comprehend how a man with no moral compass would remotely have any compassion for those who do not share his same tax-bracket, let alone someone who looks onto Rumsfeld as a loyal ally. This is largely because McKay doesn’t color in those spaces for us. In many ways, this film is the “Twitter” of political movies. A long-winded strand of brief, disjointed musings that only add up to a larger, cohesive whole because they share the same subject. They’re incendiary because they intend on being just that. We exit the theater knowing Dick Cheney was a real bastard. Any movie trailer could’ve told us that.

Ultimately, it’s confusing what McKay is trying to tell us. His film condescends to us in a way few movies even dare. Were we, as Americans, supposed to rebel as a collective unit and crucify Cheney in D.C.? Were we supposed to openly and more brazenly call for Bush’s resignation during the early aughts? For a film that demeans us for being ignorant and pokey with a clearly dangerous and caustic vice president, it sure doesn’t clearly state what we were expected to do as American citizens, even if we were aware and “woke” enough to denounce the administration while they held power.

Vice could easily be a movie I look back on in five to ten years and admit I was dead-wrong in my initial impressions and grow to love its tactics and relentless commentary on an already maligned administration. Today is not that day, dear reader.

Grade: C-