' ' Cinema Romantico: Vice

Tuesday, January 08, 2019


If Christian Bale, disappearing beneath prosthetics and mounds of makeup, ever truly becomes former Vice President Dick Cheney in “Vice”, it is as a smug supervillain, leaning back in an office chair like a self-appointed Lord of America’s manor, sucking air through the side of his lips in the manner of nothing less than a Lizard King. Eek. If something deeper lurks below, Bale rarely finds it, aside from a few isolated moments, as if theorizing that Cheney ditched his humanity along the side of the road, leaving nothing more than towering condescension and self-importance. Oddly, that puffed-up-edness comes to define “Vice” itself, written and directed by Adam McKay, which seeks not only to recount the horrors inflicted upon America by Richard Bruce Cheney but to scold so many average Americans for failing to pay heed as it was happening, a pretty bold position to take when your own movie isn’t much more than a sensationalized Wikipedia entry.

“Vice” opens by first showing us a young, hellraising, socially disinterested Cheney before cutting to a future Cheney on 9/11 who instantly recognizes the opportunity to grossly consolidate power in the wake of a national tragedy, indicating the movie’s desire to chronicle how we got from the first place to the second place. But while a movie following Dick Cheney on his megalomaniacal rise might seem readymade to tease out its diagnosis of his psychological temperament, “Vice”, in fact, identifies the problem straight away, in a scene where the young Cheney is working on powerlines in Wyoming. When he comes across a co-worker who has fallen and shattered his leg, begging for help, the camera looks up from the injured man at Cheney, and Bale has his character register this moment with a terrifyingly placid indifference.

Granted, “Vice” does portray Cheney’s devotion to and focus on American branded evil as being initially motivated by his wife Lynne who Amy Adams plays not so much convinced of Cheney’s predestined greatness as insisting he be great, relatively speaking, or else. She is Shakespearean, in other words, in her machinations, which “Vice” briefly literalizes in a bout of bedroom iambic pentameter between Dick and Lynne, a comically distinct sequence where getting to listen to Bale as Cheney as the Thane of Glamis. It’s a kick, and it is emblematic of the myriad bells and whistles that McKay injects throughout, copying his “The Big Short” blueprint for spotlighting how modern America frequently fails to notice dangerous shifts in societal tectonic plates because we are subsumed by the noise of our respective cocoons.

That is not unnecessarily untrue, and yet “Vice” is mostly just noise itself, a series of incidents failing to culminate in anything piercing or profound. When the young Cheney asks his mentor, future Secretary of Defense in Cheney’s – er, Bush’s – administration, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, gleeful in his evil disregard), what they believe, Rumsfeld just laughs. They don’t believe in anything, really, and every fancy aesthetic flourish throughout just reiterates this point, leaving you with nothing much more than a Aren’t These People the Worst? Compilation, and often in a tamer manner than the movie itself to seems to think. Though the opening title cards claim a kind of gonzo journalism, “Vice” nevertheless comes across a lot less gleefully exaggerated than, say, “Winter Kills” (1979), which was truly off the rails even as it simultaneously provided clarity into the Washington madhouse. McKay might spotlight the Vice’s vision for Unitary Executive Theory, yet he suffers from his own lack of cinematic vision, merely parading all the bad things Cheney did across the screen like a collection of souped-up skits, assuming it will suffice.

The closest “Vice” gets to illuminating its subject involves Cheney’s daughter, Mary (Allison Pill), in a mid-movie scene where she comes out to her father and mother. “It doesn’t matter,” her father says, a line reading that Bale injects with a truth impressively pushing past the usual “As a father of daughters…” politician platitudes. This becomes a through-line to the movie’s end where Cheney essentially goes back on these pre-established beliefs about same-sex marriage, all of which becomes tied up in his heart transplant. Here McKay makes the age-old joke of the former Veep having no heart literal, though he is also pinpointing this as the moment in which Cheney became heartless, which is at odds with the remainder of the movie, all the way back to that Wyoming telephone line worker, which consistently renders him heartless. Cheney contains no multitudes, in other words, because the movie forgoes drilling down into his psyche, as if putting him on the witness stand and then never really asking the right questions. Why you can almost imagine the real Dick Cheney watching “Vice” and deploying the smirk Bale so accurately captures.

Cheney’s right there in front of us, but once again, he gets away scot-free.

1 comment:

keith71_98 said...

I really disliked this thing and felt McKay's tone management was abysmal. I do love a couple of the performances but otherwise this thing felt unfunny and unfocused. It certainly was no where near close to making my Top 10.