Vice: When Style Detracts from Substance
By Matthew Kim
Vice, directed by Adam McKay, presents the supposedly “biographical” story of Dick Cheney’s unorthodox rise to power from an alcoholic lineman to G.W. Bush’s vice president by blending elements of drama, comedy and traditional biopic style. McKay provides a window into the shady deals and loopholes exploited by the Bush administration to expand their influence and power, with particular attention paid to the “real” reason American went to war with Iraq after the 9/11 bombings.
From the get-go, McKay’s directing style becomes apparent and is, somehow, both the best and worst aspect of Vice. The film interjects various video clips in the middle of dialogue to facilitate the movie’s storytelling. Sometimes these clips help the audience visualize the impacts of Cheney’s actions and the pervasiveness of his influence in the US government; other times they devolve into superfluous didacticism, harping on points excessively and thereby sapping the film’s storytelling of its nuance. The jump cuts between clips of Cheney legalizing torture and graphic footage of people getting tortured, for instance, are not exactly subtle.
Throughout the film, there is a mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons) who provides some context and information about Cheney and his role in shaping American politics. As this narrator make his appearances here and there, I began to wonder, “Who could this possibly be?” McKay leaves the audience anticipating the connection between the mysterious narrator and Cheney until the end, at which point a disappointing payoff made me question if this was even necessary to the film. Ultimately, the narrator’s role felt like a distraction to the overarching story of Cheney and the movie could have gone without it—it already has enough on its plate as it is.
Vice’s strength comes from its stellar cast: Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams, and Steve Carell. First off, it’s no secret that Christian Bale lost himself in method acting once again to perfect his role as Dick Cheney and it clearly shows. Bale’s portrayal of Cheney and his mannerisms is nearly perfect, especially his portrayal of Cheney’s idiosyncratic speaking patterns, uttering words through the side of his mouth. It is no wonder why critics and audiences alike have been raving about Bale’s performance. But viewers shouldn’t overlook the standout performances from Sam Rockwell as G.W Bush and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. Rockwell’s and Carell’s performances were both integral to the film, as they each dominate the their scenes with unique quirks and spot-on wit. On the other hand, Amy Adam’s performance lacked the luster of her costars: it wasn’t bad per se but it wasn’t all that captivating either. It felt as if she was going through the motions and waiting for each scene to end. I’m not sure if I can blame the actress or the writing for the result of this performance.
Vice had the potential to explore Dick Cheney’s complex role within the Bush administration during the Iraq War, but McKay’s over-the-top editing and ineffective humor stunts that potential. It is not to say that comedy cannot be an effective method of delivering more “serious” stories, but the editing and humor here tend to fall flat quite often. If McKay had focused more on Cheney’s reasons for doing what he did instead of flaunting his directing style, Vice could have been a more thought-provoking and engaging film than the one we ended up with.