One of the first things we see in Adam McKay’s new film is a battered car woozily swerving from side to side down a dark and lonely path. The car is promptly stopped by a police officer, who arrests the chunky, slurring figure of Dick Cheney, played with understated menace by Christian Bale. In a way, this opening scene acts as a near perfect metaphor for the film itself. It’s a punch-drunk, erratic and meandering affair; a vehicle spiralling out of control with no sense of restraint from its driver. Unfortunately, unlike the sozzled Cheney, Vice is never halted. There is no lawful third party to reign in its sense of chaotic excess. Instead, it races on and on, ending up in one great big car crash of a film.
The problem with Vice isn’t its political stance (which I wholeheartedly agree with) but the smug, arrogant way in which it delivers it. McKay smothers you with every single cinematic device up his sleeve in such a self-congratulatory way that I was left exhausted by the end. I was craving for a scene which didn’t contain a glib joke or an editorial gimmick.
‘I was craving for a scene which didn’t contain a glib joke or an editorial gimmick’
Indeed, the editing was, for me, one its major problems. One scene sees Cheney and Bush Jr (played here by an uncharacteristically flat Sam Rockwell) considering the nature of Cheney’s prospective role as VP over some iced tea and fried chicken. As Cheney makes his pitch, a bizarre and pointless visual gag is thrown into the mix, as the camera slowly zooms in on a freeze frame of Rockwell slurping the skin from his drumstick. It seems as though the quality of humour and technical skill required to get a ‘best editing’ nomination at the Oscars is at twitter meme status. Throughout this scene, and the film in general, we get flash cutaways to images of predators chasing prey or a fish being hooked by bait. ‘LOOK AT ME!’ I could hear McKay nauseatingly scream in my ear, ‘I’M DOING A VISUAL METAPHOR!’ This overt and brash stylistic device seems to have come straight out of The House That Jack Built. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that the whole film was the product of Lars Von Trier eagerly getting his grubby hands over a copy of a Noam Chomsky book and deciding he’d take a stab at a political biopic.
The script is also equally problematic. We are often reminded that if you’re aiming to make a well-crafted piece of cinema then ‘show don’t tell’ is a rule you’d be keen to stick to. Adam McKay, however, takes this maxim and burns it like a piece of incriminating evidence lingering in the White House. The whole film is a tirade of people explaining things to you. It thinks it gets off free by finding quirky visual ways of dumping exposition onto you like satirical sewage, but the effect is just as testing.
‘When it comes even remotely close to understanding just what made Cheney tick, just what his aim in life was, it backs away by inserting a cheap joke’
But what really irked me was the baffling and seemingly unjustifiable reason as to why this film exists at all. We are told at the beginning that Cheney is one of the most secretive political figures in modern history, and that any attempt to reconstruct his motives or reasoning would be tough, but that the film has ‘tried its f****** hardest’. Yet it never lives up to this central premise. When it comes even remotely close to understanding just what made Cheney tick, just what his aim in life was, it backs away by inserting a cheap joke. The narrator, who has been guiding us through Cheney’s inexplicable rise to power, even acknowledges this at one point, as he ponders ‘just how many steps ahead of everyone else was Cheney?’, as he mulls over the prospect of becoming Vice President. But instead of answering this and other broad questions, Cheney and his wife veer off into a Shakespearean monologue as a flippant gag about how little we know about the couple’s private moments.
I didn’t laugh once during Vice, but I was horrified, both at the monstrosity of Cheney’s actions, and the lack of sensitivity with which McKay dealt with them.