Vice Is a Movie About Itself

I know it’s late for I or anyone else on The Avocado to review this movie, but please understand two things:

  1. This came to Israel a bit late.
  2. Nobody else has written a review on this site.

So there. I waited a week more to sort out my feelings, but they haven’t much changed. Despite emerging from the cinema mostly happy, a single question entered my mind and never left: what is this movie about?

Obviously it’s about the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), the improbable political maven who worked mostly behind the scenes from the Nixon administration onward to eventually become Vice President under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), a nominally trivial position from which he managed to accrue disproportionate power in no small part thanks to the 9/11 attacks, the controversial right-wing legal theory known as the Unitary Executive Theory, and an outstanding skill for studying human character and manipulating everyone around him.

Aside from that, though, Vice is everything and nothing. Coming off the more consistent (if considerably more condescending) prestige picture The Big Short, director Adam McKay reimagines the life of Dick Cheney as a broad skeletal outline of crucial moments, often very funny, but ranging wildly in character from melodrama to docudrama to (in its greatest moment) a deliciously sarcastic deconstruction of prestigious biopics in general. All of this is narrated/elaborated upon by Kurt (Jesse Plemons) a seemingly ordinary man who claims to be “related” to Cheney, though exactly how is only revealed at the film’s conclusion.

Vice’s individual triumphs cannot overcome its narrative hollowness. Despite its relative entertainment value, it deals with major events in Cheney’s life mostly through the shared memory of the audience, almost like a Marvel crossover about real life. The similarities to the Marvel Universe don’t go unnoticed by the movie, but self-awareness can only account for so much. However often Vice is at pains to point out how little we really know about its subject– facetiously dramatizing a scene between Cheney and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) by lifting dialogue wholesale from Shakepeare’s Richard III to prove the point– McKay and company have no such compunctions about its narrator. Kurt, you see, is entirely fictional, yet his existence is presented to us sincerely and uniquely without comment.

If Vice can invent a narrator, why must it be so conservative in its unwillingness to read into Cheney, or even its version of Cheney? The film offers viewers no greater insight into the man, no desires, no motivations, except perhaps the implication that politics gave him a sense of purpose that regular life could not. But in a sea of politicians, there is only one Dick Cheney, and Vice leaves him as much a cipher as he has ever been.

Coming at the end of a cinematic year defined (at least to me) by disappointment, Vice raises similar issues to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, another prestigious, almost-good film that gives a farcical twist to real-life events. Both films falter in their overweening attempts at relevance. Both even conclude with montages linking the events of their plots with current events in American politics– in BlacKkKlansman said conclusion is redundant; in Vice it is tenuous in all but the most philosophical of circumstances. But where BlacKkKlansman fatally vacillates between crowd-pleasing, blaxploitation-tinged wish fulfillment fantasy and stern polemic, Vice never reaches a point wherein any such vision or clash thereof can be discerned.

In a roundabout way, Vice mirrors the type of movies which once sought Oscar glory by aspiring to challenge the policies of Bush and Cheney in their own era– Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of ElahExcept for Elah (for complicated technical reasons), none of these movies got the gold. They existed to satisfy a desire possessed exclusively by filmmakers and studio executives to sway a public which had already been swayed and speak truth to an administration already on its last legs. Though they range from tragically flawed (Rendition) to actively offensive (Redacted), all were unfocused, incurious, and existed for the sake of existing.

Unlike those movies, Vice at least has humility and a sense of humor, which makes it incredibly watchable. But still I leave scratching my head. The only thing to be learned about Dick Cheney from the movie is that a movie about him is inherently appealing. And for a movie called Vice, shouldn’t we at least learn his?