Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 3, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Vice (2018)

2019's Oscar season has had its share of controversy, as is usually the case. While most of the debate has swirled around whether ignorant mediocrities and films made by rapists should be celebrated by the Academy, a third and much more minor controversy has emerged. Following the manically edited, based-on-facts, socially conscious dark comedy “The Big Short,” Adam McKay has made another manically edited, based-on-facts, socially conscious dark comedy. A biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney, it was initially titled “Backseat” before being renamed “Vice,” presumably because the title “Dick” was already taken. The film is controversial because people can't agree on whether it's good or not. Some critics consider it among the best films of the year, others say it's among the worst. Despite this very divisive reception, “Vice” still received eight Oscar nominations and seems primed to walk away with one or two.

Cheney is a well known historical figure but most people probably don't know much about his personal life, allowing “Vice” some room to educate. We see Cheney's early years in Wyoming, as a struggling Yale student and electrician that drinks too much. At the insistence of his wife, he shifts into politics, eventually getting an intern position within the Nixon White House. There, he makes powerful friends. As the administrations change, Cheney finds himself both in and out of Washington, before George W. Bush invites him to be his running mate during the 2000 campaign. Cheney begins to consolidate power, support the fossil fuel industry, deregulate Wall Street, and polarize the news and media. Once the September 11th terrorist attacks happen, Cheney sees a clear path towards his goal of unitary executive theory.

“Vice” is a dispiriting portrait about where an unquenchable thirst for absolute power can lead you in America. Dick Cheney is depicted as driven primarily by the desire to have as much control as possible. He is taught ruthlessness by his mentors, primarily his equally power-hungry wife and Donald Rumsfeld. He values loyalty above everything else. He cares not for laws or the truth, being willing to disregard both of these things to further his goals. He betrays friends and rewrites history. Most of this is documented fact and “Vice” portrays the calculated way Cheney gathers his forces with a cold, distant eye. It watches as the gears turn, as he makes decisions that will change history. This makes “Vice” a frequently punishing watch, devoted to a quietly awful man deploy a master plan motivated by avarice and a lust for power. 

Though it's about his life, “Vice” often resists getting inside Cheney's head. The few times it does, when it attempts to humanize this historical villain, is when the film is at its best. An impressive sequence depicts Bush trying to ask Cheney to come aboard his campaign, literally making us privy to Cheney's thoughts as he coldly deduces the other man's motivations. What humanizes Cheney the most is his relationship with Mary, his lesbian daughter. More than once, he declines to run for president for fear his opponents will target Mary. The film rather literally asks whether Dick Cheney ever had a heart at all. It uses the hokey but effective visual representation of him getting a complete heart transplant when he finally betrays Mary, when he cuts away the last tether connecting him to basic human decency. He, of course, makes this decision to further the power of the Cheney dynasty. I wish “Vice” explored this dynamic a little more, even if it meant making a monster seem sympathetic.  

McKay brings the same hyper-active style to “Vice” that he did “The Big Short.” The film has a similar framing device, being narrated by an Iraq War veteran that talks directly to the audience. The movie jumps back and forth in time. McKay frequently has news reporters set up events that happen. He frequently connects Cheney's techniques as a fisherman with his political strategy. That's not the only heavy-handed visual symbolism utilized, as board games also put in an appearance. Through aggressive editing, cutting between the movie and real life images, McKay connects Cheney to pretty much every political horror of the two decades. This fast paced editing and writing eventually manifests as sarcasm. There's a conversation between Dick and Lynne is performed in Shakespearean pentameter. A false ending early on suggests an alternate world where Cheney didn't go down a path of evil. Sometimes faces are blurred and dialogue is bleeped.  This is A Lot of Movie and whether McKay's style is energizing or exhausting is a matter of personal taste. When combined with the depressing material, I found it numbing more than anything else.

Putting all of that aside, most of the praise around “Vice” has centered on its performances. Christian Bale, a greedy bastard who already has one Oscar, tries the classical technique here of gaining a lot of weight and uglying up with make-up. He definitely disappears into the part and perfectly impersonates Cheney's mannerisms and voice. It's still hard for him to grasp Dick as a person, since the script keeps the vice president's feelings away from the viewers. Amy Adams is honestly more impressive as Lynne Cheney, a frighteningly powerful woman who knows how to get everything she wants. A sequence where she tells a group of shirtless good ol' boys exactly what they want to hear is chilling. Among the also heavily made-up supporting cast, Steve Carell is darkly hilarious as a vulgar, unforgiving Rumsfield. Sam Rockwell plays Bush as a chimpanzeeian nincompoop. Alison Pill is often quietly heartbreaking as Mary, the often neglected emotional core of the film.

Ultimately, I'm really honestly not sure how to feel about “Vice.” The way it breathlessly depicts how Dick Cheney redirected history to further his unambiguously evil goals is so chilling that it eventually becomes numbing. The director's smart-ass flourishes are interesting and amusing, but also smugly self-satisfied. Not to mention they frequently jive weirdly with the film's more dramatic goals. The performances are brilliant and studied but the script is reluctant to let us into the historical figures' heads. These are all problems “The Big Short” had as well. “Vice” is less obnoxious, less crushing in its infographic overload, than that film. Yet I'm still not sure how much I actually got out of it. [6/10]

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