Father Cheney and His Children
Some Thoughts on Adam McKay’s Vice
(Note: With the Oscars approaching this Sunday, I realized that some film reviews I’d written over the past year were about to become obsolete. So I’m dumping them here. Hopefully, someone will read them and realize that there are far better movies than Bohemian Rhapsody.)
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht is considered by critics to be the master of politically-conscious narrative-based art. Under Brecht's theory of "epic theatre," plays must constantly remind audience members that the events and characters depicted onstage are part of an illusion. Brecht's plays achieve this through harsh lighting, musical interludes, and blatant reminders to the audiences that they are watching a play. These methods are meant to discourage audiences from achieving emotional catharsis through identifying with the characters and encourage them to consider the events of the play in the context of their current social and political environment.
Even at its best, Brecht's work is frustrating entertainment. By design, it is didactic, cold, and cerebral. When performed badly, Brechtian theatre makes Saturday Night Live's high school theater troupe look like the Royal Shakespeare Company. Because good political art is hard. It's difficult to encourage audiences to think rationally about the need for social change without producing finger-wagging propaganda or emotionally manipulative melodrama. And herein lies the issue of Adam McKay's newest film, the Dick Cheney biopic Vice.
“Even at its best, Brecht's work is frustrating entertainment.”
McKay is the closest heir to Brecht (or at least the most popular) in recent memory. His earliest skits as an improv comedian and a writer for SNL were based on puncturing the comfortable facade of entertainment and leaving us in stitches while doing so. Even throughout his run of successful (and sophomoric) comedies with Will Ferrell in the mid-aughts, McKay made audiences laugh by testing just how far a scene could push the bounds of reality while remaining within audiences' suspension of disbelief (see the "Afternoon Delight" scene from Anchorman or the entirety of Step Brothers).
However, it was with 2015's adaptation of Michael Lewis's The Big Short that McKay first flexed his Brechtian muscles beyond jokes about Ron Burgundy's casual sexism and Adam Scott's a cappella take on "Sweet Child of Mine". In telling the story of three groups of Wall Street outsiders who made a fortune by shorting the housing market on the eve of the Great Recession, McKay highlighted the ignorance of the individuals that make up our society's most powerful institutions.
The Big Short was a sleek and smart film that leveraged its overactive self-awareness to turn a potentially dull topic into off-the-walls fun. McKay used a seemingly inexhaustible variety of unorthodox storytelling devices to convey his message: Margot Robbie explaining credit default swaps while sipping champagne in a bubble bath; Ryan Gosling's wry voiceover spearheading the most meta performance of his career; and even Christian Bale and Steve Carrel giving top-notch dramatic performances that are hilarious in their social ineptitude. With The Big Short, McKay took the Brechtian model and perfected it, creating an emotionally stirring and politically aware film that forced viewers to examine the roles of government and banking in their day-to-day lives.
In Vice, McKay draws on the same bag of tricks that made The Big Short such a wild ride. However, while each of those tricks in The Big Short felt like sticking the landing of an Olympic somersault, in Vice, the stumble is evident. The plot is guided by voice-over from a character who, like Big Short's Jared Vennet, plays a crucial role in the plot. However, unlike Gosling's oil-slick Deutsche employee, Jesse Plemmons's narrator interrupts the narrative as much as he guides it, and his "personal connection" to Cheney will ultimately leave you feeling cold.
“Vice…draws on the same bag of tricks that made The Big Short such a wild ride.
Despite all the bells and whistles, McKay never loses his sense of irreverence. In typical fourth-wall breaking fashion, McKay demonstrates Cheney's power of persuasion by depicting the young White House staffer attempting to convince President Gerald Ford to take part in a bewigged, phallic puppet show on the White House lawn. Elsewhere, McKay depicts Dick and Lynne Cheney’s debate over whether Dick should accept the offer to be George W. Bush's running mate as a Shakespearean debate, and a riotous false ending midway through the film makes viewers feel pangs of loss in considering a future that never was.
Although Vice is cut from the same stylistic cloth as its predecessor, unlike in The Big Short, none of these techniques go down easy. While it's fun to watch a Stepford-seeming Amy Adams and a schlubby Christian Bale growl to each other in 16th century English, McKay's images of Guantanamo Bay prisoners undergoing "enhanced interrogation" ensure that we never forget the consequences of each joke.
Once again, McKay grounds his story in our present reality by incorporating still images and video clips of pop cultural touchstones that occurred alongside the events of the film. However, in Vice, McKay is determined to push the Kuleshov effect to its breaking point. Images of fly-fishing are contrasted with war-torn cities and Americans overdosing on opioids. It's an overwhelming reminder that the actions of the American government affect every aspect of lives both here and abroad. After a while, these cutaways begin to feel gratuitous and mean-spirited, an unsubtle reminder of American ignorance in the aftermath of September 11th.
“None of [Vice’s] techniques go down easy…”
Yet, for the first 90 minutes of Vice, I held out hope. I had seen this play before, or so I thought: There is a moment at the beginning of the third act of The Big Short where the fun starts to run out. After Finn Wittrock and John Magaro's indie hedge-fund managers have made the trades that will allow them to profit off of the impending financial collapse, they are reprimanded by their apocalypse-prepping mentor (played by Brad Pitt). In an impassioned close-up, Pitt reminds Wittrock and Magaro that if their gamble succeeds, they will make their fortune off the same event that will cause innocent people to lose their homes, their jobs, and maybe their lives.
While watching Vice, I kept waiting for this speech to occur, for some adult to swoop in and make everyone realize the consequences of the free-wheeling protagonists' actions. That speech never comes, either because the protagonists don't realize these consequences, or they don't care. Dick Cheney and his co-conspirators in the Bush administration did not consider the lives of the individuals on the receiving ends of their extradition commands and security orders. There was no one there to lecture us then, so now there’s only McKay. And his methods are neither as stirring nor as pretty as Brad Pitt’s.
While all of this makes Vice a difficult film, I can't say that it's a bad one. From the film’s earliest moments, McKay makes his motives clear. He wants to show how American politics of the late 20th century set the stage for one individual to manipulate his way to nearly unlimited power. It's bold, overwhelming, and disheartening, but none of it is by accident. More than anything else in Vice, McKay's thesis shines through.
Yet McKay does so at the expense of his actors. Bale's Cheney is a masterful imitation, full of the thoughtful stares and soft smiles that made him terrifying in works like American Psycho. However, because of the expository nature of the storytelling, we never fully understand how Cheney's apparent anomie led him from being a docile White House intern to a megalomaniacal second-in-command. The same goes for Steve Carrel's Donald Rumsfeld, who is portrayed with all of the barking excitement of Anchorman's Brick, but none of the endearing ignorance.
More than anyone else, the women of Vice shine through the rhetoric. Amy Adams's Lynne Cheney is a quiet storm of ambition and rage that makes her just as terrifying as Bale, and even more tragic. Alison Pill is compelling as Mary Cheney, the youngest Cheney daughter who becomes the black sheep of the family after coming out. Unfortunately, we neither identify enough with her father to understand his cold disregard nor see enough of Pill to be firmly in her corner.
“More than anything else in Vice, McKay's thesis shines through.”
From the opening credits, McKay admits that his film holds no biographical authority over these individuals. Once again, his purpose is to engage the mind, not the heart. Yet the aggressive nature of Vice makes me wonder if there is a better way to make political art. Despite their eccentricities and profiteering, I felt for the protagonists of The Big Short. At the same time, when I left that film, I didn’t quite understand what action I was supposed to take in response to Wall Street’s exploitative greed (Arguably, neither did Congress, but that’s a much longer article).
Maybe we’re wrong to go chasing Brecht’s tail. Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk provides a recent example of how a film can ground itself in a political reality while fostering love for the people it depicts. It’s a lush, romantic film that encourages viewers to consider how our country’s private and public institutions are designed to disadvantage people of color. However, Jenkins is telling a different story than McKay, and he is working with much more noble source material.
The fun of McKay's films comes from watching boorish, entitled men leverage their privilege to make fools of themselves. For every Jenga block thrown by Ryan Gosling and every set of prosthetic testicles thrown atop Will Ferrell’s drumset, you cackle along while thinking to yourself, "Should I really be laughing at this?" With Vice, McKay invites you to laugh along with the most powerful people in American history. Just know that it's gallows humor, and the joke's on you. When I left the theater after seeing Vice, I felt awful. Brecht would be proud.