The embargo is finally up on Vice, Adam McKay’s visual essay on the rise of Dick Cheney, and more so than just about any movie I can remember, it’s hard to know what to even say about this one.
McKay’s style is both frustrating and refreshing, doing things other filmmakers should’ve done a long time ago but in his own, idiosyncratic manner. McKay admirably doesn’t weasel out of the responsibility of non-fiction the way most biopic directors do. So often filmmakers will open their film with some jokey disclaimer like “based on a true story — sort of!” as if that absolves them of lying whenever it seems convenient. “Half true” is sort of like half pregnant; either it is or it isn’t.
McKay openly aspires to nothing less than the truth, albeit told in the jokey, conversational tone of someone who honed his storytelling style in live sketch comedy, where you have to do something disarmingly broad every so often so no one gets bored. Vice‘s opening disclaimer says it all, with McKay promising a story “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history. But we did our fucking best.”
It’s still jokey, but at least he’s not deflecting. The world has been crying out for more “open source” style biopics like this, which respect the viewer’s capacity to see a mix of stock footage and recreations without being taken out of the story. Argo was mostly pretty good, but it’s impossible to see that final scene, with the Iranian soldiers actually chasing Ben Affleck and the gang down the runway, and not think “Oh come on, no way it happened like this.”
Because… well, it didn’t. But even if it had, audiences are too conditioned by “dramatic license” to buy certain scenes at face value. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. We just need the occasional signpost to prove that what we’re watching actually happened when the truth starts to seem too Hollywood. That scene in Selma where Martin Luther King calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and she sings to him over the phone, and in the bottom of the screen director Ava Duvernay cites the FBI surveillance logs of MLK to show that the call actually happened, is a perfect example of how it can be done well. More recently, American Animals was one of the first movies since American Splendor to truly innovate when it comes to mixing the real subjects with the people playing them.
Adam McKay deserves some credit for starting this ball rolling in The Big Short, and he continues to run with it in Vice. He does plenty of things like a traditional biopic, casting Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Liz Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. But throughout McKay retains his style of direct address. As Sorry To Bother You director Boots Riley put it, McKay “doesn’t just break the fourth wall, he comes and sits in the next seat with popcorn and hot sauce.”
There are scenes in the life of Dick Cheney — who we follow episodically from his journey from a ne’er do well drunk in Wyoming to becoming then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld’s protege — that are truly a hoot. Like when, early in his career, Cheney asks Rumsfeld, “What do we believe?”