Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Pill
Vice is the satirical docudrama recounting the activities of the political players responsible for the global, ideological fiasco that was/is post-9/11 American politic. Very much in the same vein as director Adam McKay’s previous film The Big Short (2015), which told a tantamount story concerning the economic travesty that was the 2005 U.S. housing mortgage crisis. This time though, we’re instead filled-in to the quiet, but monumental circumstances surrounding enigmatic figure, past Vice President Dick Cheney (played by an impressively stout Christian Bale) and the unsettling precedent he so vicariously set in his pursuit for power. Once again, Capitalism is front and center (albeit unnamed) in this historical case study of perhaps the single most fatal vulnerability in the American governing framework.
We first meet Dick Cheney inebriated, making his way down a desolate back road in an old beat-down car before getting pulled over by a cop. Surely we’re to think, “how did this troubled man come to be the cold opportunist who justifies this film?” The unsurprising answer being familial privilege. Cheney isn’t as well off as the son of a former US President, but his family ties run deep enough to earn him admission to Yale, where he quickly flunks out. Seemingly fallen into the working class rut, Cheney begins the familiar life trajectory of overworked alcoholic as pleaded by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), whose father ends up killing her mother out of that exact truth. Lynne reminds Dick of the long list of suitors that would be happy to marry her if he doesn’t find it in himself to take care them and their own in the growingly widening socio-economic valley. It’s here in Cheney’s “lowest” moment that he makes a choice, the choice to engage the world in a way he otherwise wouldn’t. In order to spare him and his wife and family, Cheney must commit himself to power. So likely from pulling those same familial strings again, Cheney manages his way into a White House internship under the Nixon administration and crosses paths with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who comes off as the caricature of what every middle-aged white man aspires to be: a wise-cracking, assertive, self-fulfilled “winner”. Cheney is immediately enchanted by Rumsfeld’s over-the-top shtick, wanting so badly to be just like him. The problem is, this aspiration model he’s chasing is just that, a caricature.
This moment is key to what the rest of the film is playing at; I’m afraid too many viewers will not recognize it and be eager to dismiss it as a kind of “lazy” evocation, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong with that assessment, but the deeper truth on display is the one denied by Republicans and Democrats alike. As necessary participants in the neoliberal state, we are all forced to presently exist in a power structure that subjugates anyone who doesn’t actively serve it, which becomes the source of contradiction that leads to global and local exploitation, death, retaliation, and a lesson perpetually ignored by those fortunate enough to find themselves in the few positions of power. Dick Cheney didn’t “invent the wheel” so to speak, but what his story very nicely encapsulates is the volatile danger of late-stage Capitalism as it pertains to socio-political conduct. Cheney’s success in achieving proxy unitary executive power is due largely in part to the use of a combination of social engineering and new age marketing tactics, fundamental Capitalist tools, to establish the stimulus feedback that still exists to this day and fine tune his gross machination as needed. With the only actionable concern being how to gain more power than presently had, the political game now becomes just another marketing campaign – a communication framework that is at its core not real. It can never be real. When the same tactics used to sell widgets is now used to sell policy, marketer intent dictates the depicted reality that the masses will begin to believe, the more that narrative is repeated by trusted faces. The film shows us a montage of various politicians, Democrats and Republicans, echoing the same lies thought up by Cheney and company to sell to the American people and the rest of the world. And we keep buying it.
Vice has to be my biggest surprise of 2018 – even if the execution is a bit heavy-handed at times, leaning into the more sensational contemporary parallels a little too much. But it’s clear that McKay and Bale are in on the “joke,” with the punchline being the identity of whom or what Cheney swore his agency to. It’s who a teary-eyed, helplessly obedient Cheney truly addresses in the film’s final moments, as he’s channeling his inner Frank Underwood and lying directly to the audience trying to justify his evil actions. For a brief moment, the facade of strength fades and a breeze of distress rises as he turns his words to whom he was really serving the entire time: the power that compels us.