By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 17, 2018)
Walking into Vice late last month, I knew what was coming. There’s no way to review this movie adequately without laying the groundwork first. It comes with the territory the subject matter inhabits. The screening experience was mentally conflicting, because in the same breath you can talk about the heavy-handed and loose-with-the-facts political proselytizing and also talk about how good Adam McKay is at this stage in his writing and directing career.
No longer content to pump out low brow, yet consistently entertaining Will Ferrell-driven comedies, though he’s also part of Holmes and Watson (which I still have no idea why exists), McKay has decided he has something to say, and he believes everybody needs to hear it. It’s the Hollywood ego that both drives his success, but also makes his work polarizing. For as much as I enjoy HBO’s Succession, I know inherently how much McKay despises Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, and everyone on the right side of the aisle. He doesn’t just dislike them, he finds them evil. Not that the show is political in nature, certainly not to the degree of this effort. His subjects do seem to follow a similar pattern, however.
McKay classifies himself as a “democratic socialist,” and was a huge Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016. Succession is about rampant power and money gone amok and features absolutely zero redeeming figures. The Big Short is about the 2008 mortgage crisis, the vultures and opportunists involved, and the absurd abuse from Wall Street and lack of oversight and regulation from federal agencies. Guess what? Vice is exactly what you’d expect from someone that has gone from being an improv comic to an SNL lead writer to a political activist who serves on anti-corruption, anti-capitalism councils and bleeds Sanders blue?
It wants to call itself a comedy, but has no problem being a propaganda piece, just as long as the audience doesn’t realize it’s “faction” just as much as its fact or fiction.
Why else would Vice be so, for lack of a better word, mean, in its treatment of former vice-president, Dick Cheney? This was a man who no doubt was an unlikable public figure and a frequent liberal punching bag during the George W. Bush administration, but is presented in the movie as if he’s one step away from being the Devil himself. While portraying Cheney as diabolical and the embodiment of everything bad in the world, McKay also makes sure we know how he struggled in school, how Lynne Cheney controlled him, and how he defended his lesbian daughter for a while, until he lost his spine as Liz tried to win an election of her own.
For Adam McKay, and liberals of his ilk, 2000 and 2004 never went away. They haven’t forgotten, they still believe the election was stolen from Gore, they hate the Iraq War, hate Bush, REALLY hate the current President, and know that their prime audience feels the same way. There’s nothing at all rebellious about Vice. Dick Cheney being a feckless, then a power-abusing villain isn’t novel, but it’s also not a risk, because those that will pay to see Vice will do so for one of two reasons:
They’re liberals that just want to engage in “clapter,” which is what much of today’s comedy has become. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and so many others now want to make points and have people applaud and laugh simultaneously, but generally favor the former. Vice is designed to be a comedy, and it has plenty of humorous highlights, but it exists more to play to its base and go after the right.
They’re conservatives who want to be angered so as to confirm their own belief that the left is intolerant and dishonest, while purporting to be the opposite. It’s to back a worldview. “I hate _________ and this is another reason why I’m right.”
No one is buying a ticket to Vice to have their mind changed about Dick Cheney, about the presidency of W, the War, health care, abortion, or anything else. These are all items that were decided long ago in our heads. What you need to know going in is that Adam McKay is a top-notch talent at the height of his powers. The Big Short might be my favorite movie of the decade, Succession was the best new show of 2018, and Vice…after burying the lede to set the stage…
…is one of the best movies of the year, provided you can find entertainment value and not get lost in the weeds of the soapboxing.
Christian Bale’s performance of Dick Cheney is utterly frightening in its perfection. He put on weigh to look like the former VP, his vocal range, tone, and cadence is dead on, as are the facial and mouth movements that accompany Cheney’s speech. Bale is just this kind of actor, willing to go to whatever length necessary to make his work even minimally more effective. His 2004 appearance in The Machinist is all anyone would ever need to view to understand how accurate the previous sentence is. It’s almost dangerous how far he’ll go to get the job done.
No one comes close to Bale this year in terms of Lead Actor, and it would be a crime if he doesn’t walk away with the Academy Award, with all due respect to Bradley Cooper and others. This might be the best work of Bale’s entire career, which covers an immense amount of ground. He wasn’t the lead in The Big Short, but he took over every scene he was in. Here, he’s able to be the focus, but also to still hold the screen while ensuring our eyes could shift to Adams, Rockwell, Carell, or others.
From a casting perspective, Vice is as good as it gets. In similar fashion to other directors, McKay has developed some favorites. Both Bale and Steve Carell were in The Big Short, and both are smack dab in the two primary male roles in Vice. McKay is smart. He found the right guys. Just as Christopher Nolan cast Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, and others in multiple films, just as Martin Scorsese used Daniel Day Lewis anytime he could, Leonardo DiCaprio whenever he could, McKay has found his own bench. What once was Ferrell is now Bale, Carell, and sometimes…it’s still Ferrell.
Bale should win, and although Lady Gaga likely will win for A Star Is Born, Amy Adams deserves all the credit in the world for her work as Lynne Cheney, who is written to be a cutthroat opportunist whose ultimatum led to Dick’s life changes. What ultimately separates Bale’s work from Adams here is that Amy doesn’t have the benefit of playing a character we know as well. We don’t know how Lynne Cheney speaks or how she walks or what she does, thus when we see Amy Adams, we still see Amy Adams.
When we see Christian Bale, we see Dick Cheney.
Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld is largely comedic, but integral to Cheney’s Washington ascension and his political maneuvering. Again, as usual, Carell is excellent, but never do you think you’re watching Donald Rumsfeld. You feel like you’re watching Steve Carell. It’s a function of not having a hold over how Rumsfeld spoke and moved. It’s also why Sam Rockwell’s Bush works so well, because not only does he have the look down, the way he delivers the lines is nearly pitch perfect. It’s not Ferrell lampooning Bush, it’s Rockwell attempting to become 43, and he does a fine job of it. His nomination is coming as well, even though he probably won’t win.
The film, which hilariously in the credits puts forth a scene to try and intimate that every word in the script is true (that’s absolutely false), is tremendously entertaining. McKay showed the “extra” in his game in The Big Short, utilizing tactics and clever tricks like explaining complex investment banking concepts using Margot Robbie in a bathtub or the late Anthony Bourdain at a blackjack table with Selena Gomez. This stuff worked like gangbusters in that movie, and though it’s done just a little differently in Vice, these inventive storytelling devices and breaks from the norm are all nonetheless effective and extremely well-executed.
Vice never outlasts its welcome, even clocking in at a robust 132 minutes. It’s compelling and beautifully paced. Structurally, just as The Big Short was, it’s magnificent. It’s going to generate a tremendous level of controversy, vitriol, love, hate, applause, and boos. Your ability to enjoy it will hinge on whether you want to watch a movie, or you want to get mad at either Dick Cheney or Hollywood. It’s possible to agree or disagree but still just view the movie. The usual suspects will be out in force on both sides to go after it or to call it the greatest movie ever.
Critics will love it, as will newsrooms, as will all of Hollywood. It should rack up awards, because the subject matter speaks to a time the left still likes to beat up on and still hasn’t let go of yet. As a movie, Adam McKay hits another home run. Brilliantly acted, wonderfully cast, with an exceptional score, a different brand of storytelling, and a good mix of humor with the heavy, Vice is an incredible movie.
It’s also one that will be hard to watch for some, and at times requires suspension of disbelief. For instance, Valerie Plame is mentioned and the old narrative is put forth as fact, when the right believes it’s basically been debunked, and was already questionable by the time Fair Game released nearly a decade ago. Everybody in the GOP is evil, short of Colin Powell, who is shown almost as a pawn forced to carry water for Cheney, and to a lesser extent Bush. The other common theme is that Dick Cheney ran the country, not George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney is the antichrist.
Full disclosure, I wouldn’t agree with much of anything with Adam McKay. As a matter of fact, I think he couldn’t be more wrong. I would agree, however, he’s good at what he does, really good, and I’m a huge fan of his work. I thought Vice was great…as a motion picture. I also think it’s highly dishonest, playing the old Cheney hits, even those proven inaccurate. As a movie and taken as a work of entertainment, it’s award worthy. The acting, particularly Bale, will and should be honored.
Boy, is it ever going to simultaneously please and tick a lot of people off though. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, even though my eyes came partially equipped with their own set gritted teeth by the end of it. See, I told you I was conflicted. I still am. I expect I won’t be alone. If you can’t separate the politics from the “faction,” I’d advise you to pass on it. There’s enough negativity you can’t avoid to find an excuse to add more to that plate. If you can, there’s a lot to enjoy within Vice.
I’m @JMartZone. Mission accomplished.