Oftentimes, in periods of mounting turmoil, voices of dissent have a tendency to be amplified. In the case of Vice, writer/director Adam McKay’s bleakly comedic postmortem of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s tenure in office, the righteous indignation is turned up to 11. For a significant subset of the cinema-going populace — those who might be pejoratively described as overeducated, elitist liberals — McKay’s acerbic satire is right on target. As an overeducated elitist liberal myself, I can say that the movie mostly hits its intended mark. And as someone who typically enjoys a good chuckle when bearing witness to chaos and discord, I can say that the partisan bickering currently taking place over the merits of McKay’s most recent work warms my cold, black heart.
In McKay’s estimation, Dick Cheney’s figurative heart is almost certainly — and in the culmination of one running gag, quite literally — blacker and more atrophied than my own. His depiction of Cheney is that of a man driven by an insatiable lust for power; cunning, ruthless and totally amoral. The few vestiges of humanity allowed to develop around McKay’s Cheney are fleeting, and none remain by the film’s final frenetic frames. Is any of this accurate? Well, as the film itself points out, the stated facts are a matter of public record, though the lack of nuance and internal conflict presented are definitely a matter of artistic license. Think of Vice less as a work of historical record than as an exaggerated allegory, one with an openly admitted bias. That being the case, your appreciation of the film is likely to depend upon which side of our present political polarity your personal ideals lead you to embrace.
For those not outraged at the outset by Vice’s unabashedly leftist sentiments, the film can be one hell of an entertaining ride. Christian Bale’s performance as Cheney is every bit as good as you’ve heard, although he’s very nearly overshadowed by supporting players Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell and Amy Adams. McKay’s screenplay is just as sharp as his Oscar-winning adaptation of The Big Short, although his decision to return to the disjointed stylization of that film leaves Vice feeling vaguely repetitive. It’s a film that boasts a whip-smart script and some of the best acting of the year, but falls short of its predecessor by dint of a lack of directorial ingenuity, if not imagination, as it revisits well-trod territory.
Vice is an odd narrative that skirts the margins of a peculiar kind of cringe comedy, espousing a cynical worldview that’s often too depressing to be funny. Still, there’s something refreshing about McKay’s lack of equivocation on his central themes; he’s presenting a layman’s overview of the political machinations set in motion under Cheney’s watch and drawing a direct line to our current White House woes. Oversimplified? Absolutely — but compelling nonetheless. Now, lest you think me unduly myopic in my red/blue binary assessment of Vice, I should point out that not all of the negative reviews appear to have come from conservatives, nor have the positive mentions come exclusively from liberals. But McKay has purposefully set up a dynamic that deliberately reinforces that exact ideological divide — an intention he owns up to with a midcredits stinger featuring a focus group gone awry. It’s all in good fun, provided you’re prepared to ignore the real-world stakes such infighting implies — but as much as I enjoyed the anarchy of it all, there’s an air of desolate hopelessness that, for some viewers, may not prove a virtue for Vice.