On the face of it, VICE (written and directed by Adam McKay) is about the life and work of former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney (a bulked up Christian Bale), who – the film contends – was the prime mover behind the US’s foreign policy response to the 9/11 attacks. It is, in fact, about a lot more than this – about executive overreach, torture and extrajudicial rendition, the war on terror and, a little more indirectly (though not much), the current divide in US politics.
Technically and formally, the film is reminiscent of McKay’s previous film THE BIG SHORT, which won the Oscar for best-adapted screenplay (Vice itself has garnered eight nominations for this years Oscars). It has the same jarring jump cuts, it breaks the fourth wall, speaks directly to the audience and luxuriates in playing with form. If anything, VICE presents a broader canvas: whereas THE BIG SHORT looked at an isolated period of time prior to the 2008 crash, this sweeps through history from Nixon’s Washington, through 9/11, to the present day.
It also does something interesting with Cheney himself. While THE BIG SHORT followed a group of men at the centre of the crash, it was really the story of the irrational system whose meltdown those men managed to foretell. VICE more consciously aims to be biographical, positioning Cheney as both the progenitor and human manifestation of the rotten structures at which the film takes aim. It is, more conventionally, a biopic: even if it has a lot of fun with the biopic form – about fifty minutes in, the film presents an alternative universe: throwing up captions telling us that Cheney retired to the countryside with his family and nothing else of any note happened to him (a set of fake credits begin to roll…)
While VICE definitely has something to say, and is endlessly creative in finding ways to say it, there is still something a little jarring about the seriousness of the message and the irreverent way in which it is told. At its best; it is dark and stark and daring, but when it doesn’t hit it can sometimes feel glib and sensationalist: more than once it unexpectedly bombards the audience with graphic scenes of torture. The intention is a good one: to shock us out of complacency, but the effect still has a whiff of exploitation: those being tortured are never humanised or addressed, they are offered us as pure spectacle.
The other question that needs to be addressed is the film’s – at times gleeful – partiality. The opening crawl reads:
The following is a true story.
Or as true as it can be, given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history.
We tried our fucking best.
While there’s a refreshing honesty to admitting the level of fictionalisation going on, I’m not sure we can take this – admittedly tongue-in-cheek statement – at face value. The horror and rage that bubbles beneath the surface of the film is palpable; despite its protestations, it does not seem too concerned with finding the “truth” of Cheney or his character. It never really gets under Cheney’s skin or understands the man.
Even when Cheney turns to the camera and addressed the audience directly, his monologue doesn’t enlighten: it is a usual series of cliches about doing whatever he needed to keep American family’s safe – it’s pure Jack Nicholson in A FEW GOOD MEN, big, bombastic but with no real attempt by the film to engage with the views behind the rhetoric. McKay isn’t here to understand Cheney, but to bury him – it is as though the film took a look at the current political context and said fuck it: we don’t need to understand these people, we just need to beat them.