Adam McKay’s biopic Vice (2018) portrays the life and rise of former vice president Dick Cheney, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carrell and others.
While the movie has garnered very polarizing reactions and opinions, Vice is a great piece of entertainment and under that hood a very accurate stab at the state of journalism, politics and their perverse symbiosis today.
Let’s have a closer look at those ideas.
The historical basis of this movie consists of an array of political figures and events, but the main player Richard Bruce Cheney a.k.a. Dick Cheney served as the 46th vice president of the United States from 2001 to 2009. He is considered, more objectively, the vice president with the most power, and less objectively the most ruthless and scummy of them all.
In that sense there is already plenty of highly interesting source material given by the main topic of depiction, Cheney himself. He is mostly described in superlatives, as „Few political figures in history have been so reviled“ (TA). Also an alleged superlative is his level of power in the Bush administration, since „it was Cheney (and not God, or George W. Bush, or anybody else) who selected himself as vice president back in 2000“ (GQ).
While for me this is obvious, it might be important to point out that the aspect of truthfulness should by no means be the preferred lense to view Vice. While a general consensus describes Cheney as ruthless and Bush as a simpleton, the White House ecosystem and its portrayal can be argued in regards to any of the characters or events, down to the smallest detail which either is remembered differently or shaded by bias.
First of all, the genre of this movie should be taken into account, since that has a lot to do with the initial message.
Vice transcends traditional historical-biographical niches and sets out not to be a biopic, since historical accuracy is clearly not pursued according to the initial exposition of the movie itself. Vice is „as hilarious as it is grotesque“ (TG), everything from Cheney’s fatness to Lynne’s hair hive to certain lines in certain dialogues has been heightened. That is the point of this movie and it is trying very hard to show said point very early on in the movie.
It overloads with effects to that purpose – that’s why it has been callled a „chuck-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks sort of film“ (TG). This is a hilarious comedy, very obviously filled with overdone scenes and twisted reality.
Furthermore, the central performances of the movie are gripping and well-executed. Bale and Adams as Dick and Lynne have great chemistry and portray their characters wonderfully. That is no surprise, moreso to be expected, since Bale and Adams have had great on-screen chemistry in The Fighter and American Hustle beforehand, and are both respectively very brilliant and diverse actors.
Regardless of that knowledge, those two performances transcend in many ways throughout the movie. Adams‘ way of showing Lynne’s earnest investment in Dick’s becoming still leaves for the impression that in some moments her lip might be twitching in self-irony. Bale’s perfect balancing between his lazy body and alert mind makes for an accurate portrayal of a highly effective and politically dangerous but also humanly funny sloth ninja character.
The passion Dick and Lynne supposedly share for each other is put into perspective when she gets her Yale dropout drunkard husband to focus on his ambitions, and „his passions are transferred to food and power“ (TG3). Interestingly enough the two do seem to keep a perfect harmony from there on, never betraying each other and remaining on good terms, she accepting her place and he giving her a platform after she has vigorously advocated for his ambitions during his heart attack induced absences.
The fact that the relationship is shown as affectionate and caring, the fact that the tone of communication between the mother and her openly gay daughter remains cordial although her father openly opposes gay marriage – those scenes are uncomfortable if not macabre. A rising concern might be that the human side of such characters is taken into consideration at all, because aren’t politicians to be put in a position where their character is irrelevant and their actions in regards to their vows and duties are the only things we should see about them?
Humanizing a man like Dick Cheney can be held up as the critic’s claim at this point. However, the fact that no one is vying for sympathy from the people nor their family but only ever striving to reach and keep a position of absolute power is very clear and remains front and centre of the movie.
The juxtapositioning of cinematic effects for comedic relief and hard truths about corrupt politicians makes for an uncomfortable combination. In a way, Vice carries exactly the sort of nihilism we need at the moment, at least Trump has now inspired some sociocritically underlined hilarity, because Vice inspires laughter only as long as you don’t actually start reflecting on the source material.
So while some opinions are that „Film-makers […] fear accuracy will not put bums on seats. They must make Brexit into Game of Thrones.“ (TG2) There is truth in that, however – there is also nothing wrong with getting bums into seats for an entertainment piece. A movie is not a documentary, not an essay, not an article. It’s a comedy and a fictionalisation first, and can choose to be a piece of education if it wants to.
There has also been criticism for the movie being a danger to the act of truth-telling itself, (TG2). In this sense one could argue the exact opposite: Twisted movies like Vice showing how news can be fake, facts can be made into entertainment and the very possibility making bank from movies about ruthless power hungry criminals can be seen as a rather sharp and direct criticism towards USA’s current situation. The fact that this movie is successful can be seen as sociocritical stab at USA’s political reality already. A society where „fake news“ is declared by someone who clearly tells lies and validates feelings as facts on a daily basis is exactly the kind of twisted and grotesque reality this movie portrays.
If the entertaining, sensational aspects and the scandalous political history of Dick Cheney can get views and attention, and putting those painful truths into a grotesquely comedic setting can make people think about what they’ve just watched, Vice has done everything it could have done right.
The Atlantic: Remembering Why Americans Loathe Dick Cheney
The Guardian: Why Vice should win the best picture Oscar
The Guardian, 2: …the new threat to truth
The Guardian, 3: Christian Bale hilarious as toad-like VP Dick Cheney