Awards-season makes for the best conversations regarding film, no matter the year or the films involved. If you want to be a part of the conversation (which I am guessing a very small number of you actually want) this year’s race is not an exception. Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk, First Man, Mary Poppins Returns, and The Favourite are a diverse group of films that cover a number of different stories propelled by exceptional craftsmanship. Adam McKay’s new political satire Vice is one of the films at the forefront of this conversation. Vice, a biopic about Vice-president Dick Cheney’s political beginnings, and what he and his people were responsible for during his time as VP of the United States of America.
Director Adam McKay is not against going political in his films. His previous film, The Big Short, was a dissection of the 2008 housing crisis and those who were aware of the imminent financial crisis and made a profit because of their foresight. Both films have a negative outlook on those in power, whether it be financial or political. (I really want to go on comparing and contrasting the two, but that is probably better saved for someone smarter than I am!)
Vice is a strong film all around. With a magnificent performance by both leads, Christian Bale (Dick Cheney) and Amy Adams (Lynn Cheney), and good supporting performances (Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush, and Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell) the film is entertaining to watch just on a “lets watch these people try their best to be other people” level. You might have noticed that Tyler Perry was mentioned as a member of the cast that stood out, and this might be a stretch for some, but his work is subtle and measured just as the script sets him up to be. Bale and Adams are the two that will receive the most credit though, and deservedly so. Bale’s body and voice transformation (when is that going to be something that people do not lose their mind over?) are helpful, but the most convincing aspect of his performance as the former vice president comes in the form of a soft-spoken, do-what-has-to-be-done attitude that permeates from him throughout the film. The beginning of the film starts with short statements from the creative team about Dick Cheney and how secretive he is. One can assume that an individual that is so secretive is probably not going to be the loud, outspoken type. Bale (and the script) builds off of those foundational traits with a deliberate pace to his actions. Adams, on the other hand, plays flashier of the two characters. Playing warmer and more persistent of the two, she takes her opportunity and succeeds at each opportunity, a trait that has become her trademark. She is in a position to be nominated for a best actress in a supporting role easily, and between her and Regina King of If Beale Street Could Talk, the race could become interesting once results from early awards shows start to flow in. Add a strong visual style based on natural light, and period style, (and a number of areas that I forgot to mention) and you get a very strong overall movie.
Now for the complicated part. Dick Cheney is a complicated figure that went into politics during a complicated time period (Nixon administration) and held important positions during complicated eras. At the risk of redundancy, it is safe to say that this is a deeply complicated story at its core. The complexity is only deepened by the density and reality of many of the story components. These people are not trying to fight a purple universe invader, they are fighting terror, the Constitution at times, and themselves. Torture, foreign policy, the United Nations, their ideological counterparts, the lists could go on and on but one thing is for certain, it is all dense, complicated material that needs to be studied from all sides and perspectives.
I am breaking all the rules in this next section but using the first person is the best way to describe the feelings that I associate with this film. I had a complicated relationship with The Big Short when I first saw it. Most of the complications came from the fact that I did not understand much of the subject matter or the jargon that the story needed to be most effective. With time and lots of reading, I have come to better understand the material and jargon which has allowed the story to have more relevance to me. (At least that is what I tell myself) I can tell that Vice and I are going to have a very similar relationship. While I am much more comfortable with the setting and the jargon, I feel that I need more time to research the backstory so that I can make up my mind on this film. Coming out of the theater, I told my wife that they screwed this one up. They did not make their villain, Cheney, relatable enough for my taste. To say that McKay and the creative team made the climax of the film a rather blunt metaphor that Dick Cheney is a heartless human being could be simplistic, but the film does not necessarily give much to make the audience think otherwise. This is a very bold claim that fits the time we live perfectly. I do not feel that many would disagree with me when saying we live in a very politically radicalized time. Sentiment might seem to be “either you are with us, or you are against us.” With the terms stated as such, it makes sense that a movie about one of recent history’s most polarizing figures is bold in its claims. It has to be, otherwise, it might risk being ignored or doing the exact opposite of the creators’ intention. My struggles with the intensity of the message might signal that I am not radical enough for either side in a political sense, but from a filmmaking perspective, it makes me wonder what it was that pushed it over the edge for me. I know that I am making it sound like they made Cheney out to be a one-sided individual, which is untrue. They do make sure to give him complexity with the coming out of his daughter, resulting in a decision that took away from his ability to run for any major public office under the Republican party because of the anti-gay marriage piece of its platform. (If you are curious about the totality of this particular arc, watch the movie!) If you are saying something along the lines of, “Did this guy actually watch The Big Short? That entire movie is harsh and unforgiving.” Yes, but that was about an institution, not an individual. It is much easier for me to believe that an institution is complete without morals than an individual.
This is all summing up to one word that we have already spent time with, complicated. Adam McKay’s Vice is a complicated movie. It is strong in its message, and today that is most times seen as a positive trait. In the future, it will be interesting to see if this film is remembered fondly, infamously, or not at all. Politics have been and always will be a part of film, that is something that is okay. Every film has its own spin, a message that it is trying to send to those who watch it. While this film might not be for everyone, but you should think about giving it a shot because it does present recent political events in an interesting and sometimes hilarious manner.
Thanks for reading! Curtis