Vice (2018)

Adam McKay’s Vice opens with a disclaimer: The following is a true story, but note that it’s based on an infamously secretive man, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Working with limited information, “we did our f***ing best.”

This half-assed attitude sets a surprisingly consistent tone throughout the whole film. Vice feels like a movie where they tried, but not very hard. Early on, Cheney (Christian Bale) as a young upstart White House intern falls under the wing of then-economic adviser Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Rumsfeld explains the rules of engagement to Cheney and how to navigate the river rapids of D.C. politics, told with a devilish glee and cynicism. Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” which cracks up Rumsfeld. “What do we believe.. that’s a good one!” he howls with laughter.

Writer-director Adam McKay goes out on a limb that Rumsfeld, and the political machine he’s a cog in, has no beliefs, and I guess we’re supposed to go along with that. Love him or hate him, he’s a power-hungry monster with no driving force beyond that. Even Cheney, as he rises in second-place prominence as the right-hand man of countless Republican figures, speaks only of power and how to best wield it. But power for what exactly?

The script strips these figures, despicable as they may be, of any depth or content to unpack and explore, which begs the question of why McKay made a film about them at all. If he’s not going to make an effort to understand (or at least explain) them, it’s unclear why he, and we, are undergoing a two-hour film rolling through such vacuousness.

I checked out of this live-action cartoon pretty early on, but couldn’t stop giggling as some of the sinister plot points unfolded: Cheney placing friends and colleagues throughout the executive branch, a PR firm researching and executing talking points that best resonate with the electorate, all while sinister music warns us of the impending doom.

The Bush-Cheney administration was apparently the first ever to exercise these tactics, and I wonder if McKay knows that subsequent administrations did the same. Another mystery is the script’s frequent bubbling up of the unitary executive theory: the idea that the president has sole power to control the executive branch, without any checks to stop him/her. Yes, this is a theory, but it’s all pinned as starting with Nixon, nor does McKay acknowledge another (better-known?) theory called the Imperial Presidency, which argues that as early as Lincoln, and certainly ramping up with Teddy Roosevelt, that the power of the executive has gradually increased throughout history, and those powers have never gone back to the legislature or other branches of government.

I don’t mean to sound hung up on this, but Vice overall is a pretty surface-level take on a very complicated, though understandably contentious figure. If we’re supposed to engage with a very negative telling of a much-hated politician, they should at least have made a better effort to contextualize his place in history, or make an effort to unpack what makes him tick beyond “power.” But I guess they tried their f***ing best.

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