Vice ends on a scene where we flash back to a focus group earlier seen determining that ‘climate change’ were a less credible threat than ‘global warming’. In it a liberal and a conservative start getting into an argument over the film’s credibility as a factual document. Off to the side, a young woman already painted as vapid, turns to the person next to her and comments that she can’t wait to see the the next Fast and Furious joint.
Does Adam McKay really see his audience as either too politically blinkered or unengaged to appreciate his work? It’s a rather sour note to exit on, the cynicism of an auteur so wholly believing himself to be a contemporary Cassandra. But equally, one kinda can extend him some sympathies in this regard; almost four years after his critically acclaimed breakdown of the corruption behind the 2008 financial crisis, nothing has changed. Economic inequality in the West has only worsened and our collective hard-on for capital seems to be leading us to a recreation of those same events.
When looking back, everything seems so much more simple. The Big Short took a visceral delight in explaining what exactly a CDO, for example, was — and how one acronym meant that just about everyone got fucked. It’s a neat trick, his kinetic energy as a filmmaker turning an the lessons of an economics textbook into a gripping piece of pop-filmmaking. He was lucky to come across a textbook that was complicated and twisting and important enough for us to all pay attention, because the expanding scope of history does little to paint in the humans at its core.
One of the things that this movie stops to explain to us is the ‘unitary executive theory’. A political belief motivating its lead that, when taken to its most extreme interpretation, invests the president with an arguably undue amount of power. It never spends half as much time encouraging us to consider why this is a belief he holds. Of course, the answer it wants you to arrive at is fairly obvious — the subtextual underscore of every single scene. Dick Cheney is a bad, power-hungry person.
Sure, given all collected evidence he certainly seems to be, but the film’s elisions suggest something far more curious. Like, at the beginning we are introduced to a drunk, college dropout being dressed down by his wife for not living up to his potential. Cut to the man at a DC internship working under Donald Rumsfeld. What happened? I get that the point of interest is his political operating but shit, what did those six years bring? Later on there’s an extended joke about how one cannot truly know what motivates people when one is not privy to their private discussions.
It barely reckons with the fact that its silence on the matter says just as much.
Christian Bale is fairly remarkable in the role. For a man who, it is suggested, rose to the top by being an outwardly bland and uncharismatic figure; he manages to make the small shrugs of them broad shoulders immensely compelling. There’s an artificiality about the way he moves, strides shorter than they should be, a practised slouch as he settles in to convince an ally to board his latest scheme.
Yet the lack of specificity clearly hamstrings him too. While the ageing makeup and shot choices do their best to paint an unflattering portrait of his later years the characterisation remains unmoored. I couldn’t tell you how this man changed with age. Unhelpful that, instead of surrounding him with characters McKay again primarily uses his actors’ comedic personas to inform our reading. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfelt is a wonderful joke — especially in a scene which features an uninterrupted half minute of his cackling — but it’s not useful to us.
Bale, and an underserved Amy Adams, feel caught in the centre of this maelstrom of silliness. Outside of the clownish world of politics they find themselves inserted into, family is the only opportunity for their humanisation. Their struggle to balance allegiance to party with having an openly gay daughter, Dick’s lifelong medical issues. Is it borne out of a weird sense of propriety maybe? For a film that so ruthlessly condemns the public life of its lead, it’s very respectful of his private affairs. Which, guess what, kinda just makes them more compelling than everything else.
Even the procedural bits are a little lacklustre this time. Jesse Plemons, who I love, narrates. Eventually the film will explain his presence, but never his purpose. He exists almost as an excuse, the film wants to go on a surrealist bent where people discuss jerking off in the oval office? The narrator can tee up the scene. Want to shock the audience by incorporating archival footage of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq? Sure, that too.
I think McKay probably really likes youtube video essays. I like them too, and it’s great that he now has the budget and prestige to properly experiment with how to incorporate the benefits of the form into narrative filmmaking. This unfortunately isn’t it. The film feels like it’s at war with itself, torn between a character study and a straight up educational work. Yet the character study is bad, and the educational merit hamstrung by being constricted into a framework that does not readily suit it.
Thinking about it, I’d like to propose an alternate reading of the final scene. One which is not critical of the audience, but instead of the filmmaker. Is McKay in that moment admitting that he’s failed? Made a film that is too easily accepted by uncritical audiences, too easily rejected by those that are, and too niche to appeal to the general public. Because that’s kinda what he’s done. When the woman running the focus group turns towards the two way mirror and shouts; ‘Hey, can you please get in here?’ Are they talking to the audience or the director?
It doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day the mess is still on screen.
Vice is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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