This Is a Movie Review: Vice

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CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

This post 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: Hostiles

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CREDIT: Lorey Sebastian/Yellow Hawk, Inc.

I give Hostiles 2.5 out of 5 Hostiles: http://newscult.com/movie-review-christian-bale-gives-it-his-grimmest-in-the-dour-distressing-hostiles/

This Is a Movie Review: The Post

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

I give The Post 3.5 out of 5 Sealed Documents: http://newscult.com/movie-review-defense-journalism-mounted-post-admirable-often-rousing-almost-quaint/

This Is a Movie Review: American Made

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for High Stress Profanity and a Quick Sex Montage

Release Date: September 29, 2017

Did Barry Seal live the American Dream? The marks of such an achievement are all there. The former TWA pilot rose from relatively modest means, married a beautiful woman (Sarah Wright Olsen), had three beautiful kids, was enriched by his own government, used those riches to move his family into a huge plot of land, and now Tom Cruise is playing him in a biopic. But if this is indeed the American Dream, ideals are not immune to being warped by the harshness of reality. Spoiler alert for a true story: Barry dies at the end. He still manages to accrue an insane streak of good luck, and the deadliest parts of his story are filled with mythic iconography, but his example is a stark reminder that this country’s greatness is not always so straightforward as it purports to be.

As American Made portrays him, Seal is an opportunist, but the opportunities come straight to him, from sources that are pretty hard to say no to. A mysterious CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) shows up out of the blue and offers him a deal to fly reconnaissance missions and then act as a courier to the Latin American political figures that the U.S. government covertly supports. His presence leads him into the clutches of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, who strongarm him into smuggling their product. You might think this would be the end of the road for Seal, but the U.S. is kinda-sorta allies with the Medellíns (anything to oppose the commies!).

Seal’s smuggling does attract the ire of just about every major American law enforcement agency, but he keeps sliding free. While the bulk of his work is illegal, it is also mostly government-sanctioned, even when the CIA erases his existence from their files. Ultimately, though, his government – the same one that made him very rich – hangs him out to dry. As the affairs in Latin America ultimately lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, it becomes unavoidably clear that the highest echelons of government are populated by international geopolitical criminals. And yet it is the Barry Seal’s of the world, who nominally remain private citizens, who bear the bulk of the suffering. True, he chooses to play his part and is not exactly the most upstanding person, but he is never really free to live as he pleases. His life looks pretty fun, but it is not hard to notice the gross abuse of power underneath that slick veneer.

With American Made and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman is now a specialist in subverting the aura of Tom Cruise. If you know nothing of the actor’s personal life, it is pretty much impossible not to be charmed by him. And even if you do know about the Scientology shenanigans and all the rest of it, he still might win you over a bit despite yourself. Cruise cranks the charm at full throttle to get Seal out of so many sticky situations, but it only works if the powers that be say so. American Made shows that his star still shines on but also that he (just like the myth of the American Dream) only endures because powers greater than any one individual allow it to.

American Made is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Re-evaluating Top Gun, Deconstructing Tom Cruise, Narcos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Kilos