Writer-director Adam McKay peppers Vice’s story of political corruption with surreal flourishes that recall the filmmaker’s collaborations with Will Ferrell. The idea is promising, as routine jokes like the ones found in a slob comedy such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby can feel shocking when applied to material that’s usually treated with a numbingly straight and Oscar-courting face. One doesn’t expect, for instance, to hear a reference to a circle-jerk puppet show in a biopic about Dick Cheney.
As he did in The Big Short, McKay attempts to forge a tone in Vice that’s capable of puncturing our indifference to the manna of political procedure, which is clouded by pop-cultural simplifications of personalities and of blockbuster issues like gun control, abortion, and immigration. As politics merges with show biz in our culture at large, McKay seeks to disguise substance as more noise. In this fashion, The Big Short and Vice are indebted to The Daily Show, and their slide-show montages and pithy cross-associations also suggest a cinematic merging of Vox and Wikipedia.
With Vice, McKay directly tackles the George W. Bush administration, a subject that’s been in his crawl, at least implicitly, since Talladega Nights. In that film, Ferrell played a red-state racecar driver in a manner that echoed his parody of Dubya on Saturday Night Live. Ricky Bobby is a classic Ferrell man-baby, a buffoon who luxuriates in a hopped-up “patriotic” image of America that’s been purposefully fashioned by the Republican party as a means of demonizing social services. Ricky Bobby’s product placement-laden fantasy of unbridled machismo isn’t dissimilar to Bush II’s careful references to his ranch or his jet-pilot photo ops, which, in Vice, are portrayed as gimmicks asserting the president’s gung-ho everyman status. Bush II, informed in Vice by Sam Rockwell with a wicked sense of cluelessness, is, like Ricky Bobby, a pawn who’s manipulated by higher forces—forces that are often drowned out in terms of public awareness by the easy gratifications of pop culture.
In the case of Bush II, said higher forces are embodied in Vice by Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), a career politician who exploits Bush’s short attention span and daddy issues to effectively seize control of the United States, when many citizens were looking for simplified global vengeance in the wake of 9/11. Americans wanted a real-life western with a big bad, and Cheney, with his Halliburton connections, was more than willing to serve them Iraq.
McKay frames Vice as an ironic coming-of-age story, following Cheney as he rises from drunken ne’er-do-well to congressional intern in the Nixon administration to a trusted ally of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), which eventually led to him serving as the White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford (Bill Camp). McKay reduces Cheney’s political maneuverings to a series of alternately sharp and glib sketches, with a cackling Rumsfeld teaching the future vice president to value power above ideology. Cheney lingers outside of Henry Kissinger’s office as Richard Nixon plans the bombing of Cambodia, which McKay pointedly contextualizes as an inciting incident that would inspire Cheney’s orchestration of Operation Desert Storm, as secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, and later the war on Iraq under Bush II, as an unusually and disturbingly powerful vice president.
McKay’s essential point is unsurprising yet important: that American politics is governed by dynasties, and that this country’s most shameful debacles—the Vietnam War, the bombing of Cambodia, the fabricated claims about WMDs in Iraq—have been fashioned by many of the same men and families, who’re waging mass destruction for profit and spite. McKay is desperate to cram in as many incriminating stories of Republican greed and hypocrisy as a 132-minute running time will allow, though he tries to sweeten the inevitable exposition overload with Shakespeare quotations, ribald dialogue, and other bits of business. A mid-film end credits sequence that postulates the world that might have been had Bush II not drawn Cheney back into the White House from the private sector is particularly resonant and hilarious.
Yet McKay’s ambitions often cancel themselves out. So much is going on here that nothing seems to matter, and his endless digressions annihilate any impression of a present tense. Vice is as noisy as the media landscape that McKay holds in contempt, most notably when the filmmaker alternates footage of the Iraq War with scenes from Survivor, smugly illustrating what truly commands the attention of American citizens. And two of McKay’s conceits are embarrassing: a framing device with Jesse Plemons as a bedrock American who spouts factoids that McKay presumably couldn’t fit into other characters’ mouths, and a climax that literalizes Cheney’s heart replacement as the loss of his soul, upon his betrayal of his gay daughter, Mary (Alison Pill). (Never mind that Cheney’s already a war criminal at this point, as well as a potential traitor, in terms of his role in the Valerie Plame affair.)
For all of McKay’s self-consciousness, Vice is essentially another biopic that preaches to the liberal choir, with occasional bits of lunacy that surface seemingly out of nowhere, remaining isolated from the central, and momentum-less, drama. As grotesque as the protagonists of Talladega Nights and Step Brothers were, the director clearly loved them, which gave the films a majestic sense of empathy and political daring. In those films, McKay was willing to explore the pleasure of giving in to selfishness.
Bale has a few lovely and unexpected grace notes as Cheney, such as when the man indulges his young daughters’ mischief in the White House. But McKay’s revulsion with his subject is at odds with Bale’s empathy, rendering Cheney a remote paragon of unbridled evil. Where Bale dramatizes the steadfastness of Cheney’s will, finding a profound kinship with his own obsessive practices as an actor, McKay sees mostly a cautionary tale: a real-life Darth Vader. What emotionally drove Cheney’s unforgiveable actions? Bale suggests that Cheney was enthralled with an almost narcotic need for control, though McKay isn’t willing to elaborate on this possibility. McKay mistakes his own fundamental lack of curiosity for satiric integrity.