Writer-director Adam McKay’s passel of broad comedies and more recent sociopolitical satires have three interesting attributes in common. The first is a focus on wayward American men, fictional and actual, and a hankering to dissect them and flesh out their trajectories. The second is iconoclasm, evident in the zeal with which McKay’s films explode popular institutions and ideologies, ranging from NASCAR to the nuclear family to trickle-down economics. The third is provocation, by which the viewer is poked enough to feel considered, challenged, and perhaps even culpable for the on-screen action.
These motivational strands plait in Vice: a gonzo anti-biopic that limns Dick Cheney’s rise from alcoholic Yale dropout to cunning Washington insider to shadow president—whoops, vice president—alongside George W. Bush. Like The Big Short, McKay’s 2015 take on the 2008 financial crisis, Vice is an involving satire, in no small part because McKay positions the viewer as a participant. Characters talk to you; constant shifts in narrative style and tone snap you to attention. You cannot simply sit and absorb this movie. Love it or hate it, you are one of its characters.
But first, you meet Cheney (Christian Bale) as a drunk 22-year-old in his home state of Wyoming. His high school sweetheart, Lynne (Amy Adams), slaps him with an ultimatum: either shape up or she moves on. Out of love and devotion, Cheney rises to embody Lynne’s idea of a great man. By 1969, Cheney is a congressional intern, working in the White House under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). In short time, Cheney succeeds Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford (Bill Camp).
The reasons for Cheney’s ascent, according to a mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons), are simple. Cheney is quiet, he does as he is told, and he is loyal. When he asks Rumsfeld, his mentor, “What do we believe?” as conservatives, Rumsfeld laughs maniacally and slams the door in his face. Lesson learned.
Vice prioritizes the telling of this origin story, as well as the juicy years immediately preceding and following 9/11, while skimming the periods in between: most notably, Cheney’s tenure as secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush and his activities as CEO of the oil-field services company Halliburton. But McKay gets his point. Cheney develops a taste for power and influence. He becomes an expert at wielding power because, as the film suggests, he’s an expert at reading people and giving them exactly what they think they want. For example, Cheney reads George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) as a wayward son who longs to impress his father, and thus he manipulates W. into invading Iraq to finish a job H.W. started. These are broad strokes, to be sure, but McKay’s protean, faux-documentary style allows for such heady shortcuts to gnaw at an essential truth: that power run amok is a dangerous beast.
Countless signals remind the viewer that they are not just watching the movie but are a part of it. Halfway through the film, the credits roll, but we know McKay’s bluffing. The movie kicks up again with the Cheneys discussing their takeover of Washington—nay, the world!—in Shakespearean verse. Celebrity cameos, breaks in the fourth wall, and other winking departures from reality keep us on our toes. Animal imagery, of slippery fish for Cheney to catch and of hyenas that represent disorder, appeal to our viscera. References to American Idol and Survivor collide with footage of torture and bombings. McKay knows what he’s doing, and he knows that we know what he’s doing. The contract between director and viewer is rarely so explicit or so invigorating.
McKay could have made a serious movie about serious issues, or a silly movie that dispensed with seriousness altogether. Instead, he lands somewhere in the middle, and succeeds, at the very least, in delivering a provocative indictment of one wayward American man’s wielding of power. Whether or not the viewer agrees with the film’s message—that Cheney is a fascinating and dichotomous figure, a man who loves his wife and children and executes atrocities—is beside the point. You’re interested, aren’t you? You felt something, didn’t you?
If McKay’s goal with Vice was to rouse viewers to interrogate their superiors and themselves—what they believe versus what they know—well, he succeeded. Attention earned. v