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?”
What do we believe? Rumsfeld takes it as the funniest joke he’s ever heard. Carell’s entire performance is perfect, and the way McKay captures Rumsfeld’s laugh echoing through the closed office door is the single best moment of the film. Rockwell’s George W. also seems worth a whole other movie, even if McKay already did a stage show about George W. starring Will Ferrell.
That being said, the beauty of The Big Short (which is a credit to Michael Lewis’s book) is that the story is structured in such a way that we’re put in the shoes of the people rooting for the financial crisis. The crisis is terrible, but it’s also the protagonists’ redemption. With Dick Cheney in Vice, there’s no one to root for. The best it can do is sort of humanize one of our worst people.
Put another way, I’m not sure I’m ready to hear this story over popcorn and hot sauce yet. Vice is a horror film, and it’s not the kind of cathartic horror where you can lose your real fears in an ancient gypsy curse or something for a while. It’s the kind of horror that I needed a drink afterwards to try to forget. It forces us to relive the moments where it feels like everything went wrong, sending us to that alternate future from Back to the Future 2 where Biff owns a casino (true story: Biff was based on Donald Trump, and even in the movie’s imagined horrifying future it didn’t dream Biff could be president).
It’s possible that the Bush years are still just too real. As bad as things are now, and ignoring for a moment the fact that things are bad now precisely because of the Bush years (and all the things that the Obama years failed to roll back), at least now there’s the sense that Trump is an aberration.
It still feels like a bad dream, but at least Trump is demonstrably unpopular. George W. Bush, who killed far more people than Trump has (at least so far), was wildly popular for most of his terms. Outrage felt incredibly lonely and alienating. There was no #resistance. I remember watching Carlos Mencia do a bit at the time about comparing George W. Bush to Clint Eastwood at the end of Unforgiven, and how patriotic he felt knowing we were going to bomb everyone and whipping his audience into a frenzy of supposedly hilarious bloodlust. It seemed everyone had gone fucking insane.
It didn’t feel like there was an outlet for disgust with the administration like there is now. Who would’ve listened? Instead there was a profound sense of moral rot and all we had was escapism and personal rebellion. There was impotent discontent turned inward until it became performative buffoonery. Making a beast of one’s self takes away the pain of being a man and all of that. Remember Girls Gone Wild? Remember Bum Fights? Remember Manswers? Remember people burning Dixie Chicks records? The mid-aughts were like the fall of Rome.
All of which is a long way of saying that reliving the aughts still gives me mild to moderate PTSD in a way that makes it hard to try to discuss Vice in the context of Christian Bale’s latest incredible character transformation. Vice made me feel that deep moral queasiness again. I know it meant to, but it was not a pleasurable experience. So don’t ask me if that makes it a good movie or a bad one. I don’t know. Sometimes things aren’t so easily categorized.