There is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion through art. As much as conservative pundits may accuse director Adam McKay of liberal bias for his newest film, Vice, about the life and career of former Vice President Richard (Dick) Cheney, he has just as much of a right to make films for the left as Dinesh D’Souza has to make films for the right. Being liberal does not make the movie bad, and expressing a left-wing view or even being inaccessible to the right does not qualify as a flaw.
Likewise, just because a film expresses political opinions doesn’t mean that it is good at doing so and simply being in agreement with a movie’s perspective does not automatically entail positive opinion on the film as a whole. Vice has a lot of opinions: about Dick Cheney, about the Bush administration, about Fox News, about Trump. Almost all of these opinions I agree with. But that doesn’t prevent me from saying that Vice is not only a bad movie but a completely detestable one.
Vice covers a large portion of Cheney’s life: his service under Richard Nixon, his time as Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, his time in the United States House of Representatives, his two terms as Vice President of the United States, and ending with his daughter’s failed campaign for Senate in 2014. That is a lot of plot to cover in a movie only a little over two hours long; even a seasoned storyteller would struggle under the weight of it. Oliver Stone’s W covered a similarly long time period but united them by focusing on a singular theme: George W. Bush’s motivation to get out of his father’s shadow. Vice shows no such cohesion instead throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the audience; from unitary executive theory to Cheney’s relationship with his family to the rise of conservative news to fear-mongering to his declining health; Adam McKay seems afraid to leave out anything. And so, he covers everything but develops almost nothing. Vice both tells too little of this story and portrays way too much.
Vice is a plot without a story. There’s a lot of events transpiring on screen, but there lacks an underlying story that draws these elements together. Sections of Vice are best enjoyed as their own experience, independent of the film as a whole. In the earlier sections, it’s easier to do that. But when forced to reckon with the film as an overarching experience, it collapses under its own incoherence.
The film’s earliest portions, dealing with Cheney’s relationship with his wife and time under the Nixon administration, are, if not challenging or particularly well written (going into barely more detail than the Wikipedia page), at the very least engaging. But, even these sections are undermined by a scattering of fundamental flaws: inconsistent dialogue, unfunny jokes, and a few iffy performances. Christian Bale is as good as anyone would expect him to be, but Steve Carell’s take on Donald Rumsfeld isn’t nearly as good as Scott Glenn’s performance a decade ago in W. Carell’s Rumsfeld is manic and abrasive; he’s meant to be the kind of presence that no one can ignore. If good performance is defined by conveying his character’s personality traits and not by actually making the audience feel them, then he’s certainly putting forth a valiant effort but he’s not much more.
Amy Adams fares better as Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne. She opens with a rather strong monologue about how important it is that her husband make something of his life; strong more for the performance than for the writing. Unfortunately, the scene suffers from some of the film’s lesser dialogue, though Adams makes probably about as much of it as she could reasonably be expected to. Sadly, she doesn’t get many more opportunities to shine, as her role in the movie diminishes as it goes on. She certainly shows up a lot, but she’s not a real presence.
Still, her sections of the movie are stronger by virtue of being different; Cheney is most often viewed as a political figure but rarely a husband or father, so these scenes are at least educational. Christian Bale, who plays Dick Cheney, expertly bridges the gap between these scenes, when Cheney is a loving and caring father, to other scenes when Cheney is a powerful and destructive political force ruining countless lives with his actions and greedy for influence. Bale’s ability to portray both sides of Cheney effectively is the strongest virtue Vice has to offer. Bale is not only the most enjoyable part of the movie, but he also elevates the film and provides some small entertainment value.
It’s difficult to enjoy Vice’s take on the second Bush administration, at least partly because it provides so little detail on a time that presumably everyone in its target audience lived through. The film depicts the most well-known events of the 2000s but does so in a way that only skims the material leaving out key sections of Cheney’s involvement in the presidency, including his falling out with George W. Bush after the Iraq War. Oftentimes presented in a bland lecture format, it is as though we’re sitting in a class with a boring professor.
Sometimes Vice is a comedy, sometimes it’s a drama, sometimes it’s a mix of the two. This would be fine if the film had any consistency in either in tone or telling its story but it doesn’t. Its comedy is sometimes reserved, sometimes sarcastic, and sometimes surreal. Its drama is sometimes Oscar-Bait, sometimes quiet, and sometimes soap opera-