Comedian cum-Late Night host Stephen Colbert famously complained that ‘reality has a well-known liberal bias’; a blithe statement to be sure, but one which has become something of a rallying cry for all distressed by the truth-averse populists increasingly in the driving seats of our democracies. Certainly writer-director Adam Mckay’s recent filmography seems to hold this statement with the kind of reverence reserved for Holy Writ, but he’s far more interested in the ‘liberal bias’ bit than the ‘reality’.
In the mid-00s Mckay made broad Will Ferrell comedies such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights so it was something of a blindside when he released The Big Short back in 2016. The Big Short detailed the root causes of 2008’s financial crash and how certain bankers and analysts cynically made millions by betting on collapse, which is not exactly prime Will Ferrell material. Movies about the machinations of the banking industry tend not to be crowd pleasing barnstormers, unsurprising considering the relative complexity of how to balance explaining economic theory to a potentially uninformed audience and telling an effective story. Mckay dealt with this contradiction with gleeful breakings of the fourth wall: characters would talk directly to camera, Margot Robbie appeared in a bubble bath to explain sub-prime mortgages and Mckay basically threw everything he’d learned from years of absurdist comedy at the wall in the hope it would stick. The end result turned an ostensibly ‘boring’ subject into a punky call to action against a rigged system, nihilism with a heart. If occasionally facts were bent and distorted in service to the story and entertainment value, then most deemed it a worthy sacrifice for breaking down such a complex issue and exposing such hidden venality.
Vice is cut from the same meta-cloth, but Mckay has amped up his condemnation, attacking his subject with Torquemandian intensity. Vice would be an unforgivably cruel hatchet job if it was about anyone apart from Dick Cheney. Since his days as Bush’s puppet master, Cheney has become something close to a folklore monster for today’s liberals. A deeply secretive political operator who avoids journalists like the plague, he is something of a blank canvas which his ideological enemies can project their fears against. If the liberal fear of the Trump administration is as much of its boundless incompetence as its agenda, then here is its polar opposite, an icily brilliant man who knows exactly how to get what he wants. In Vice Cheney is presented as an oblique void with no real human traits apart from a boundless hunger for power and sugary food, Christian Bale [who also starred in The Big Short] doesn’t so much play Cheney as inhabit him like a suit of porcine armour. Through a cunning mixture of real weight gain and subtle prosthetics, Bale’s appearance mirrors the former Vice-President to an almost terrifying degree. His performance is no Darkest Hour-style gimmick however, Bale’s recreates Cheney’s mannerisms to a tee: his slow growl of a voice, studded with the kind of pauses that would make Pinter sweat, the teeth baring grin constantly flickering on the knifepoint of a smirk or snarl. He is like a pendulous Great White slicing through the shadowy trenches of power. This is a serious performance at the diseased heart of a mocking satire.
Due to the combination of what Mckay’s perceives as public indifference to America’s political history and Cheney’s own elusive nature,” Vice” has an awful lot that it wants to fit in. Cheney’s inverse hero’s journey begins in 1963 as a young, alcoholic Yale drop-out. Working as a blue collar telephone line-man, frequently in and out of bar fights and jail cells, he is snapped out of his downwards trajectory by his wife [Amy Adams in the first of a series of ridiculous wigs] Lady Macbeth, or ‘Lynne’ as she’s called in this film, who threatens to leave him if he doesn’t sort his life out. He does. The film jumps to 1969 when Cheney becoming a political aid to a brash young congressman called Donald Rumsfeld [Steve Carell in wonderfully vicious form] seemingly becomes a Republican, exclusively due to his new boss’s’ devilish charisma. After questioning Rumsfeld as to what they actually believe in and seeing ‘Rummy’ break down into hysterical laughter and slam a door in his face, Cheney is seen to give up his implied inner-principles and becomes the shady operator the 21st C would come to know and fear.
Dipping in and out of Republican governments in increasingly powerful positions [whilst a series of increasingly inconsequential heart attacks are played as the films funniest running joke] we see him gathering legal precedent for the so called Unitary Executive Theory; a reading of the Constitution that effectively argues that if the President does something it’s automatically legal. Finally when he comes across a buffoonish yet charismatic George W. Bush [Sam Rockwell whose screamingly funny take on the 44th President of America is sadly little more than a four scene cameo] whom he realises he can attach himself to and reach the political heights his own anti-charisma would never allow him to reach. In effect he will be able to effectively wield the full power of this new imperial form of the presidency he has re-defined by playing Bush like a five cent kazoo. Cue evil laughter and implications that the Iraq war was nothing more than an attempt to make money for the oil company he used to be the CEO of; a period of his life relegated to a two line summary in the film.
If this seems a little bare bones, that’s exactly how the film plays it. We are never taken inside Cheney’s head; Mckay has either decided that the man’s inner motivations are so oblique as to be beyond comprehension or [and perhaps more likely] he holds his subject in such contempt that he views any true attempt at empathy and accurate representation as somehow beyond the pale. This is an interesting position for a biopic to take, to say the least but, when you get to its heart-attack prone centre, in many ways Vice isn’t really a biopic. For one thing swathes of it are not particularly interested in accuracy: Cheney was a committed conservative even during his short tenure in Yale. The nihilistic view that the man only wanted power for its own sake; that he had funneled his dammed-up alcoholism into a unslakable drive for authority makes Cheney into a purely inhuman villain, something to be jeered at. The reality is that all of his endless push for more power was in the service of a sincere and fanatical belief in American hegemony, a ghoulish neo-conservatism that has claimed the lives of thousands in the name of preserving the global status quo. This real true-believing Cheney is far more frightening than the version presented in the film. The man who strove to demolish the American welfare state, give the CIA endless power and authority, subverted torture regulations and set the Middle East on fire, did not do so simply for self-gratification, but in the service of a coldly dispassionate world view that demands the most brutal kind of American superiority at all costs. That he made money off his imperialism is undeniable, but that’s the tail rather than the dog.
What Vice is more interested in, is establishing that the new version of America and the presidency that Cheney created is the direct cause of the present President’s rise to power. Vice is a Michael Moore documentary on Trump’s America disguised as a Cheney biopic, doubtlessly a worthy parallel to draw . It’s a shame though; in making Cheney into a two-dimensional villain, Mckay’s allows the real meaning of his actions to slip away like smoke. As is, the film can come across like Soviet agit-prop, full of inert montages of vultures and flames in case we’re too stupid to understand this is a bad man. Whilst Vice is certainly entertaining, Mckay doesn’t trust his audience to realise the horror of his story so he dilutes a powerful message by screaming it in our face.