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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Vice

Back in 2015, writer-director Adam McKay stunned audiences with The Big Short, his cinematic take on the 2008 financial crisis.  Known primarily for his work on Saturday Night Live and assorted Hollywood comedies, McKay showed a side that was angrier and more satirical than we had previously known.  He was able to take his subject matter, and make it not just accessible and informative, but also entertaining.  He employed just about every trick in the book, from surprise celebrity cameos, down to flat-out fourth wall breaking, where the characters would turn and address the audience.  It was exciting, exhilarating, and unlike anything audiences had seen before.

His follow up, Vice, which tracks the life and political career of Dick Cheney, employs a similar "all bets are off" style of narrative.  He is not really making a conventional biopic here, but rather an off the rails satire that is constantly changing tones, using random TV clips to represent the messages he is conveying, and once again having the characters occasionally stop the action so that they can address the viewer, making you feel like you are part of the story while you are watching it.  It's very involving and entertaining, and if it never quite feels as daring as his last film, that's only because it's not meant to be.  McKay is using the same stylistic choices and tricks, and while they are effective, they are not as surprising, only because we are expecting it this time.  Yes, the movie could have been more hard-hitting in certain ways, but that does not mean it should be passed up.

When we first meet Cheney in the film (played at various ages by Christian Bale, in a remarkable performance), he's a 22-year-old alcoholic who dropped out of Yale, and who seems to be going nowhere.  His high school sweetheart and wife Lynn (Amy Adams) stands firm with an ultimatum to him.  Either he shapes up and improves his life, or she's gone.  Dick promises to be the best man he can be for her, and he can't be accused of not being true to his word, as by 1969, he is a congressional intern, and working in the White House under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  In short time, he rises in power, and soon he is the White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford.

All of this is narrated to us by an unknown man (Jesse Plemons), who claims to be just an average man who loves his family, and enjoys watching SpongeBob Squarepants with his young boy.  How this man knows so much about Cheney, and what role he plays in the story is kept a secret until almost the end.  Still, the man tells us how Cheney rose to power by basically doing three things that Rumsfeld admired.  He was quiet, he was loyal, and he did what he was told.  The movie skims over the years where Cheney was Secretary of Defense, as well as his time serving as the CEO of the Halliburton oil company.  However, McKay never fails to drive home his main point in the film.  As Cheney rose to importance, and eventually became the running mate of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), he became hungry for power.  The film suggests that he was an expert at reading people, and could manipulate them into giving him what he wanted, while at the same time making it look like he was giving the other person what they wanted.

For example, Cheney knew that his position as Vice President was essentially a "nothing" job.  In the movie's own words, his main job is to wait for the President to die.  However, Cheney uses his influence to manipulate and move things his way from behind the scenes.  He knows that the President he serves is basically seen as the "black sheep" of the Bush family, and uses that to manipulate him into invading Iraq, finishing the job that his father started.  We may already know the details of the story, but the way McKay tells it makes it seem fresh.  He uses cinematic tricks, such as setting up a false ending half-way through the movie, complete with end credits.  He shows us focus test groups that helped coin terms that were used frequently by Bush and his allies.  He even resorts to dramatic Shakespeare-style dialogue (complete with dramatic thunder claps outside) in one memorable sequence. 

Through it all, Vice never loses its focus, or its ultimate message of what happens when power goes out of control.  This is not a serious movie, nor is it a flat-out satire.  The end result is somewhere in the middle, kind of like The Big Short.  McKay is once again taking a complex issue, and helping us understand, without dumbing it down.  He also gets some incredible performances, especially from Bale and Carell.  Not only does everyone look like their real life counterparts, but they are giving genuinely great performances here.  Really, the only area where McKay does falter just a little is that his production is a bit too preoccupied with being slick, that he skims over a lot of the story.  Yes, this is still an informative film, but there are certain moments in the script that either gloss over key details, or seem kind of like an adaptation of a Wikipedia article.  We get the broad details, but not the smaller ones.

But we are still entertained, and I think that's really what McKay is going for here.  He wants us to be informed, and yes he also wants us to be angry, but he does so in such a way that we almost don't notice it.  He makes his point, he grabs your attention, and he makes us question what we know.  And he does all of this with a deft skill that comes from years of entertaining the masses with broad comedies.  Even if Vice is not as groundbreaking as what came before from the filmmaker, it is just as engaging.

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