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Too Clever by Half:
A Review of Adam McKay’s Vice

[1]2,063 words

Like an ingeniously designed, iridescent funhouse, Adam McKay’s latest film, Vice, will sneer at you from multiple directions. It’s as dishonest as it is clever, yet its uncanny cultural relevance makes it worth discussing regardless of its checkered merits.

More of a rehash of Democratic talking points than a biopic, Vice intends most of all to kick dirt on the career and character of former Vice President Dick Cheney. We should keep in mind, however, that these attacks come from the Left, not the Right. Furthermore, they are mostly old attacks. Anyone paying attention to the news in the 2000s will remember these tropes being touted by CNN and The New York Times while being rejected by the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. This will likely put people on the Dissident Right in a difficult position when viewing the film. Despite what many of us thought of Cheney back when he was pulling strings in the Bush administration, today’s American Right has moved past that era, thanks in large part to Donald Trump’s America First attitude. Today we’d rather make the world safe for America than safe for democracy. Foreign wars have become tainted as neocon follies, and few on the Right want to go there anymore. So we look back critically at figures like Cheney and his machinations for flexing American military might across the globe.

Part of this is 20/20 hindsight, and part is (George) Washingtonian isolationism, but none of this is what you get in Vice. What you get there is an unserious attack by an unserious director against a very serious man. This is why I suspect that Vice will tempt many Right-leaning people to defend Cheney despite themselves.

Taking out politics entirely, Vice deserves high praise for several reasons. The performances are as good as they are rumored to be. Christian Bale pulls off the understated, no-nonsense character of Cheney nicely—not a tremendous feat per se, but one that becomes remarkable when accompanied by masterful makeup work and state-of-the-art silicone prostheses, which enabled the actor to emulate his elderly, corpulent subject. This is a cinematic accomplishment in itself. Indeed, I have never been as impressed by makeup in a film. Compare Vice to the less successful efforts in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar to see how far the cutting edge of makeup art has advanced these past few years.

The supporting roles were performed wonderfully as well. Sam Rockwell affects the easy-going, anti-intellectual air of George W. Bush without resorting to SNL levels of mockery. Amy Adams slips effortlessly into the role of Lynne, Dick’s extroverted and supportive wife. Her makeup was subtler than on Bale, but equally impressive. The film flashes back and forth between the 1960s and the 2000s, and in the latter scenes, Adams comes across as the naturally aged version of the beauty she once was. Steve Carell also turns in a credible performance as the shrewd and always-warmongering Donald Rumsfeld. I expected hamminess from Carell, or at least some of the stupid-as-irony mannerisms he ran on for years on The Office. Instead, however, he just acted down to the subject matter. I imagine director McKay (who also wrote the script) told Carell in rehearsals to turn himself into a giggling prick, which is basically what Carell did; only, he made Rumsfeld a believable giggling prick.

The film, however, faceplants hard with its all-too-clever directing and editing. With his liberal use of cinematic tricks and conceits, McKay comes across as a student filmmaker showing off what a wiseass he is. As the film flashes backwards and forwards without any clear direction, he intersperses nature footage at key moments to underscore Dick Cheney’s animalistic thirst for power—or something. There’s the dead-guy narrator whom McKay unceremoniously wastes in the middle of the film, thereby showing the same disregard for life that Dick Cheney purportedly did. In case you missed it, that’s McKay’s stab at satire.

The ham-fisted cinematography allows no opportunity to underscore how evil and amoral Cheney and the Republicans are to slip by. When a young Cheney begins his career in Washington in the late 1960s, the colors are drab, the scenes visually flat and always filled with cigarette smoke. Clearly, this connotes McKay’s negative opinion of a much more conservative—and white—time period. When Cheney is about to enter his office as Vice President for the first time, he stands for several seconds in the doorway as a fat, bald silhouette. One does not need x-ray vision to see the gears turning in McKay’s mind when he envisioned that shot. Then there’s the Moneyball-esque montage of fuzzy, zoomed-in news footage that escalates in emotional intensity until it crescendos into a scene of ironic calm. An overused trope if there ever was one.

And when McKay decides to be original, he resorts to the kind of cheap gimmicks one would find in a Spike Lee joint. To show (not tell) Cheney’s talent for selling preposterous ideas as reasonable, McKay has a young Cheney suggesting to his Washington superiors that they dress their penises up with wigs and parade them on the lawn. The men nod sagely at this excellent suggestion. During the 1990s, when Cheney had temporarily given up on politics, McKay fills the screen with fake end credits—like that’s supposed to blow our minds. After candidate George W. Bush taps Cheney as his running mate, McKay has Dick and Lynne engage in Shakespearean dialogue to plumb the philosophical depths of power and its myriad ramifications—all to, get this, show what the cynical brute Cheney didn’t do when accepting Dubya’s offer.

It’s all schtick, it’s all tedious, and it is all too clever by half.

From a technical standpoint, the best you can say about Vice is that what it does well, it does astonishingly well, and what it does poorly, it does astonishingly poorly. This makes the film interesting—but only once. Regardless of one’s politics, repeated viewings will most assuredly kill its appeal.

Putting politics and historical accuracy back into our analysis, however, we find that Vice has some unintended meta value for the Right because of the way it so dishonestly demonizes Cheney. There are some half-hearted attempts to humanize him, such as with his unfeigned support for his lesbian daughter Mary. But mostly, he is a black-eyed shark who seeks power for power’s sake. Such a cypher is anything but interesting, and serves only to stroke the egos of Vice’s targeted demographic: aging, CNN-watching liberals who loathed George W. Bush and still pine for the days of Bill Clinton.

As a young man, Cheney is shown to choose the Republican Party simply by chance, as if what the GOP stood for back then meant nothing to him. As a member of the Nixon administration, he asks Donald Rumsfeld what Republicans are supposed to believe in, and Rummy laughs in his face. Cheney then celebrates Watergate as a good thing, since it is nothing more than an opportunity to bring an exiled Rummy back into power (and himself along with him). Such unsubtle depictions scream of slander and make one wonder why the real-life Cheney never developed such a bad reputation except among his mostly-vanquished enemies.

McKay jabs at Cheney as often as possible during the man’s tenure as VP. He portrays Plamegate as a vindictive swipe by Cheney at his enemies, while ignoring how Valerie Plame had already been outed as a CIA agent at that point, and how her husband, Joe Wilson, had been less than honest about his yellowcake investigation in Africa. McKay also pretends that Cheney more or less ordered the United States to invade Iraq all at once, while completely ignoring the excruciating, months-long build-up to the war in which the United States gave Saddam Hussein (a mass-murdering dictator if there ever was one) every opportunity not to be invaded. One would think that the name Hans Blix would be featured prominently in a film dealing with the Iraq War—but no. Any restraint on Cheney’s part would chafe against McKay’s anti-Cheney agenda, as would any evidence of Iraqis actually benefiting from the invasion or seeing the Americans as liberators.

As for Cheney’s alleged lust for power, McKay fails to mentions how everyone in politics has to have some of this if they wish to survive. Blaming a politician for wanting to stay in power is a little like blaming a musician for wanting to play gigs. It’s what they do, you see. McKay also fails to mention how the Democrats may have beaten Cheney in the power-lust department. There’s no mention of the long list of dead bodies and alleged rape victims surrounding the Clinton family and the host of unscrupulous things those people have done to remain in power—to say nothing of Bill Clinton’s wanton use of force against Serbia, and against his own people in Waco, Texas. Further, back in the 1960s, McKay ignores Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, and focuses only on Nixon’s.

So, in light of all this, maybe Dick Cheney doesn’t seem so bad.

Of course, we cannot defend Cheney too strenuously. It has become clear in the fifteen-plus years since the Iraq War began that Cheney and his ilk were wrong for invading Iraq and attempting to nation-build. The war destabilized the region, resulted in a multitude of deaths on both sides, gave rise to ISIS, and arguably led to the refugee crisis which is currently corroding Western Europe. Whatever good that came out of the war has been eclipsed several times over by the bad. At best, we can look back at Cheney as a well-meaning but foolhardy hawk who wanted to prevent another 9/11. At worst, he was a self-serving tool of influential, pro-Israel neocons who had infiltrated the Republican Party. Either way, however, he’s still human and deserves to be treated as such.

But McKay doesn’t do this. Instead, he imputes the most diabolical intentions upon Cheney’s bald head as if the man were a cross between Lex Luthor and the Kingpin. He also evinces the kind of lazy, anti-white racism that’s still so common among mainstream liberals. For example, when Cheney is shown working on telephone lines as a young man, another worker falls and suffers a broken leg. The indifference that Cheney and all the other white men show towards this horrific injury is nothing short of sociopathic. Likewise, when debates on whether to invade Iraq are shown, the only voices of reason in the Bush administration are the black ones: Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. In fact, when Rumsfeld butts heads with Powell, Powell is the one arguing in good faith, while the best Rummy can do is call the General a chickenshit. Sure, Rumsfeld may have been wrong about a lot of things, but he certainly had the intellect to spar with the likes of Colin Powell. Then, as if he hadn’t already stomped conservatives enough, McKay treats us to a mid-credits scene in which a Trump supporter in a focus group complains that Vice is a liberal film and assaults another panelist.

Make no mistake, in attacking an establishment figure like Dick Cheney, the filmmakers are attacking everyone on the Right. They don’t care how dissident we are. They don’t care about the differences among us, or how much less hawkish we’ve become. They don’t care if we also have significant problems with Dick Cheney and others like him. What they care about is fighting and winning battles in the culture wars, all the while leading us to believe that people like Dick Cheney are the amoral ones.

Vice will put folks on the Right in the tricky position of squabbling among ourselves to determine how much of our own past as a political movement consists of forgivable mistakes and how much of it consists of unpardonable sins. It will also force us to niggle over the distinctions between friends and enemies. These are good debates to have, and if done properly, will help the Right make peace with its past and coalesce into a stronger movement in the future. If we can thank Adam McKay for anything, it’s that—and we should make our thanks as ironic and insincere as he is.

Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You [2].