This Is a Movie Review: Dick Cheney is Ten Chess Moves Ahead of Everyone in Adam McKay’s Typically Ambitious ‘Vice’

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CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Justin Kirk, Tyler Perry, LisaGay Hamilton, Eddie Marsan

Director: Adam McKay

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity in the Halls of Power and Images of War and Torture

Release Date: December 25, 2018

If I’m understanding Vice correctly, then Adam McKay believes that Dick Cheney (here embodied by Christian Bale) is directly or indirectly responsible for everything that is wrong with the current state of American politics. That actually is not as much of a stretch as it sounds. During his eight years as vice president, Cheney wielded a degree of influence that was profoundly unprecedented for the position. The conventional wisdom is that his views on executive power and surveillance now represent the status quo for whoever is occupying the White House. Thus, McKay is not so far off the reservation to imply all that he is implying. But he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew with the expansiveness of his argument. He was similarly ambitious with The Big Short, but that earlier effort is more durable to scrutiny because there he laid the responsibility on forces that were perpetrated both actively and passively by many people. It may very well turn out to be true that Cheney’s influence is as wide-ranging as McKay claims – it’s just tricky to say so about a person who is still living.

Interestingly enough, that tenuousness is baked right into the script. If not for a few key decisions, the life of Dick Cheney, and ergo America, could have played out very differently. Without the presence of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams conjuring Lady Macbeth), he could have ended up a drunk nobody. And if not for his propensity to see life like a chess match in which he is ten moves ahead of everyone else, there might be no Patriot Act, ISIS, or extreme income inequality.

The thesis of Vice is that it was all so close to going differently. Through fourth-wall breaking and formal experimentation (like playing the end credits halfway through), the message is that all that we have been living through was not foreordained. Some may find that frightening, as it indicates that we are always on the precipice of disaster. And McKay’s propensity to cut to random footage of pop culture ephemera may come off as a lamentation that we are too distracted to do anything about it. But I actually see encouragement. You don’t have to like Cheney for him to be an inspiration. If you have a problem with the way things are in the country right now, maybe you can see an opportunity where everyone else sees the masses placated by “Wassup!” commercials. I’m not sure how well Vice works as a movie, but I choose to see it as an exhortation to make things right.

Vice is Recommended If You Like: The Big Short, Oliver Stone’s political thrillers, The Daily Show, Fourth-wall breaking

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Unitary Executive Theories

This Is a Movie Review: The Big Short

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BigShort

Have you ever seen a movie with an indelible moment and wondered, “How did I not hear about this before seeing it?” The Big Short is likely to leave you feeling this way, as nearly every feature fits this description, and most reviews are not just a list of everything that happens in the movie. You may have heard about the cameoing celebrities talking directly to the camera, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

In its editing, production design, and sound composition, The Big Short is just sick (in all connotations of that word). Adam McKay has shown some flashes of narrative experimentation in his Will Ferrell comedies (the Applebee’s commercial in Talladega Nights, direct acknowledgement of the lack of consequences following the battle royale in Anchorman, the musical breaks in Step Brothers), but in those cases they did not overwhelm the whole movie and they fit more naturally. This time, he goes completely for broke.

As for the cast, Christian Bale sinks into another character, Ryan Gosling revels in the slime and eccentricity, and the rest of the ensemble sinks their teeth into the muck. But Steve Carell shines the brightest as a trader whose arc presents the most human moments of the narrative. The whole system tears him up internally as much as it tears up any semblance of financial integrity. When he and his team visit a Florida community decimated by evictions, it is a sobering reminder of how real this crisis is for a lot of people. The film would be excellent without this segment, but with it, it is at another level.

Other recent Wall Street-based films have portrayed this type of fraud just as well, but The Big Short takes it a step further by not taking it a step further. It betrays hardly any hope that it can actually make a difference. Free of that burden, the message is: we might be as fucked as we ever were, but at least we can still make an absolutely insane movie.