Vice (2018)

“The idea is to win.”

In what’s sure to be one of the most divisive, experimental, imperfect yet vital films of 2018, Vice is essentially a highbrow, cinematic instructional guide to the everyman’s patient art of fishing. Of what it means to allow your adversary to make the first – and likely impulsive – wrong move. As such, the picture equivocates political prowess to that of able anglers who’ve mastered waters both shallow and deep, able to read the current, cast the proper lure and to tease their target into eagerly biting down on the easy bait. Vice incriminates both sides of the aisle without formally subpoenaing either, and its darkly comedic sensibilities will reel you in even as you desperately try to swim away. Hook, line and sinker.

First staggering across the screen as an aimless, disreputable young drunkard, Vice covers some 50 odd years in the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale in maybe his most gargantuan, pathos laden performance to date), from Wyoming to the White House, from everyday Joe to one of the most powerful political players in the modern era. Dick flunked out of Yale and took work as an electrical lineman, much to the disappointment of Lynne (Amy Adams, bringing an edge to an underwritten character), a smart and driven woman whose own undermined aspirations could only be fulfilled through a successful male counterpart. She tells him to straighten up, and she becomes both the back brace and the belt securing him from spilling at the seams. Vice is a movie about a thirst for power, and the Cheney’s relationship serves as a humanistic throughline to breathe heart into a picture where so many scenes and decisions are decided solely with a merciless head.

Dick gets his skin deep into the gamesmanship of Capitol Hill (it becomes clear he was playing chess while others played checkers, always the quiet fisher of lesser men), opposing parties gain control and the Cheney’s move home, he takes a position as CEO of a profitable oil business. Years later he gets the call and heads back to Washington, introducing us to a colorful crew of real life people portrayed through quickly sketched, intentionally exaggerated caricatures. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), the list goes on and on. Then what happens at the midway point is pivotal, appropriate, unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film and yet so completely in step with the waltzing theme of this bizarre and darkly tragic comedy. I’ll let you experience it without any further spoilers. Vice is both an objective history lesson and a highly subjective piece of criticism, and it’s one of the few American films in recent years to challenge the very substance of our cultural taste. We want things that are easy and palatable, an ideology which causes Vice to hold its tongue and ground itself in accessible metaphors as best it can, albeit with a few expected, “Are you effing kidding me???” outbursts.

Whipping around with a whirlwind of well researched biographical info and rich with policy data, Vice is an informative – and at times belabored – tornado-like force of carefully manufactured destruction that resides in the heart of its own storm, admiring the mess swirling outside its front door. The film’s gritty, macabre, tonally inconsistent yet undeniably engaging and contentious, oftentimes even grating on its own unconventional terms (heavy-handed satire, Shakespearean soliloquies and vague blank spaces fill gaps of journalistic uncertainty, and a final stinger nails home the broader contextual theme of quality entertainment vs. dull academia). The title refers to a commonly throwaway position in government, but it also alludes to the many vices human beings prescribe to. Unlimited power and unapologetic hubris make for quite the deadly cocktail.

Feverishly written/directed by Adam McKay (operating on the same “If you ain’t first you’re last” mentality of Talladega Nights) and expertly edited by Hank Corwin, whose skills are similar to that of a head chef manning a line of exquisite, sumptuous dishes at the kitchen’s pass, giving one last tweak and alteration to stun those of us in the dining room. Vice features great performances all around, attentive production design and an astounding eye for detail, as well as a strong score from Nicholas Britell. More than anything though, the film uses narration in the most inventive way I’ve seen this year. Kurt (Jesse Plemons) tells Dick’s story from the comfort of his modest home, whilst driving a forklift, and ultimately on his death-bed. We the people are the heart of this great country, and as the film solemnly suggests, maybe our efforts to humanize and to give ourselves – literally and figuratively – over to elected officials isn’t the right thing to do, or at least it isn’t when those in power are heartless and refuse to acknowledge the donors filling their empty cavities and lining their pockets. Vice isn’t as effective or immediately unsettling as McKay’s The Big Short, yet this big metaphor of a movie is a more accurate depiction of the now, showing how history repeats itself and that our own oblivious indifference is as guilty as the morally compromised individuals we too often elect into the highest offices of the land. We’re at a crossroads and Vice serves as yet another entertaining, educated, dispiriting depiction of the writings on the wall.

“What do we believe?”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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