Vice (2018), directed by Adam McKay

Watched at Rio Cinema, Dalston.


Bonus> HERE is a link to my review of McKay’s previous film The Big Short from my old blog.

I didn’t know much about Dick Cheney (here played by Christian Bale). And though Vice was informative about his governmental and social role, I remained confused about the motivation behind his beliefs and actions. There are moment that give clues – a scene where his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) tells him he needs to get his act together after a stretch of heavy drinking. Shortly after this we see Cheney as a government intern, quick to be inspired by Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carrel) ribald address to the hall of new employees. These two scenes create the kernel of inspiration for Cheney who, until now, had been a slacker or laborer, dropping out of Yale, working on telegraph poles, and generally slumped in drunken stupor. However, other than these instances there is little foreshadowing or clear reasoning for the ruthlessness that he later ensues. His choice to become a Republican during internship seemed almost coincidental, as if a charismatic Democrat address could’ve swung him into a different political direction. Perhaps we don’t need specific moral motivations for bein power-driven in America, maybe that motivation is already-everywhere…

Cheney’s rise to power and influence appears to be a fairly smooth ride except for a litter of heart attacks, which clearly (unfortunately?) do not prove to be fatal. Cheney jumps from Rumsfeld’s assistant, out of government and into big oil, back into government – all with loving support from Lynne. Though the narrative has clear trajectory, the film hops into different styles and aesthetics. Still images, news clips both actual and staged, documentary footage and advertisements. Though the links between the narrative and these inserts isn’t always obvious, they do make suggestions in their positioning that the audience can deduce and fill in easily, stylistically similar to political documentary maker Adam Curtis.

This visual rhetoric can be seen to serve a duel function. By using “actual” documentary images and clips, the film grounds itself further into the notion of “truth” – a reminder that it is based on “real people” and “actual events”. At the same time, the jumping of styles reminds of the film’s materiality, it’s construction and manipulation. This latter point then reinforces the tensions between actuality and projection. Like the fishing hook – a recurring motif throughout the film and explicitly shown during the end credits – what lures us in masks the real threat. The Bush administration, which repeatedly exploited veils of terror to induce their programme of threat and war, understood this.

Vice certainly criticises Cheney, his colleagues and those in the periphery of that group. It’s political angle is clear and strong, which the film shows its awareness of during the self-referential post-credit sequence (worth waiting for). Vice is successful in the sense that it shows how fucked-up these politicians were, how their choices led to so much destruction, and the price you pay as an audience member (my experience) is finding the cinematic experience very stressful. In the cinema I kept huffing, fingers to temples, whispering beneath my breath and covering my head with my coat in frustration. Particularly distressing and informative were the scenes concerning the arguments made about the president being unable to break the law (if the president does it, it isn’t against the law), the decisions that came to influence the rise of ISIS, and the short clip of Tony Blair (particularly infuriating.)

All the acting is impressive, with Bale, Rockwell (playing George W. Bush) and Carell all shedding their familiar celebrity bodies for the living politicians they embody (special credit goes out to Rockwell’s great prosthetic nose). George W. Bush – the figure who I assume the majority of audiences will be most familiar with – is first introduced drunkenly staggering around  fancy government event, a black sheep in the Bush family. His run for presidency is thus framed as a bid to impress his father. After relegating much power to Cheney’s position of Vice President – usually a “nothing” position – the firm affirms to legacy that he was just a “puppet” played by larger forces.

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