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Non-Review Review: Vice

Vice feels at once like an extension of both Adam McKay’s work on The Big Short and recent innovations on the biographic picture format codified by I, Tonya.

At its core, Vice is the biography of a man whose defining attribute is how unassuming he appears. The opening text lays out the challenges facing the production team in trying to structure a biographical film around a man who has spent his life lurking at the edge of the frame, how hard it can be to extrapolate his inner workings from the outline of his journey through the world. Dick Cheney worked very hard to erase his own footprint; it is with no small irony that the film notes how thoroughly Cheney cleared his own email servers.

No need to be a Dick about it.

The film’s anonymous narrator, himself framed as perfectly average individual, repeatedly stresses how “ordinary” the central character presents himself. At one point, he advises a former colleague that the new standard operating procedure is “softly, softly.” Similarly, the documentary acknowledges the lacunas in the narrative that is constructing, how difficult it is – to evoke a different Shakespearean play than he chooses to quote – “to see the mind’s construction in the face.”

The result is fascinating, a character study that becomes an exploration of systemic flaws and inequities. Vice is a story about a man who appears to have no fixed political beliefs, no strong political identity, no clear political voice. Instead, Vice is a study of the politics of power as politics of itself, a tale about a man whose central political motivation is not ideological or existential, but purely practical. Vice is the tale of the will to power of a perfectly mundane and average individual, and the carnage wrought on his journey towards that power.

Vice City.

The most connections between Vice and films like The Big Short or I, Tonya are purely structural in nature. Vice is an incredibly self-aware piece of work, a biographical film that is well aware with the fact that it is a biographical film. McKay doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as install a set of sliding doors. Characters speak to the camera to deliver exposition, important phrases are blown up into supersized text on screen, subtext is rendered as text, entire scenes play out as wry and knowing jokes. The film’s best joke even hinges on the audience’s familiarity with the format.

These touches are sly and postmodern, but they also invite the criticism that the film might be shallow or superficial. However, there is something very clever happening just beneath the surface of Vice. The film repeatedly and consciously breaks the fourth wall, but in a way that suggests that the story is fracturing or cracking when McKay tries to apply a conventional narrative structure to it. The narrator points out scenes that had to be invented for the film to work. There is a false ending at a particular point. The film jumps backwards and forwards in time.

All (Vice) President and Accounted for.

These moments are not just clever attempts to maintain the audience’s interest and attention. Instead, they demonstrate how awkward it would be to try to construct a biography around Dick Cheney. Vice is not really a conventional biography of Dick Cheney, even if it has all the hallmarks of an awards-chasing biopic, right down to Christian Bale’s absurd body transformation. Instead, the difficulty in applying all of these narrative elements to Cheney underscores that how different the character is from the usual subjects of such films.

As with The Big Short, McKay is much more invested in the idea of systemic corruption and decay, the idea of how power-structures operate and how the people in charge of these structures inevitably betray the very interests of the people that they are supposed to serve. To McKay, Cheney is not a particularly interesting character in the sense of having lived a particularly full or eventful life. Instead, Cheney is interesting as an illustration of how deeply warped contemporary politics have become.

No need to be so Secretary of Defensive about it.

Vice repeatedly underscores that Cheney has no real ideological adherence to the Republican Party. When he arrives in Washington, he works with Republicans because he happens to be impressed with Donald Rumsfield’s public speaking ability. When an intern is setting up assignments he ask, “What is that guy’s party?” When he is told that Rumsfield is a Republican, he replies, “That’s what I am.” Later, a still young Cheney asks Rumsfield, “Um… what do we… um… what do we believe?” Rumsfield responds with laughter so loud that it echoes through mahogany doors.

Vice returns time and again to the relationship between Cheney and his daughter Mary. Mary is gay. Much is made of Cheney’s support of his daughter’s lifestyle. He seems to genuinely love her. He does not believe that she is an abomination or that she is wrong. He does not even see her as a political liability. In an early meeting with George W. Bush, Cheney outlines that he understands as a political necessity the need to push homophobic politics in certain states, but that he will not be a part of it. Cheney does not believe in the party platform, even as he accepts its necessity.

The times, they are a-Cheney-in’.

The closest thing that Vice articulates to a coherent political philosophy from Dick Cheney is the concept of “the Unitary Executive Theory.” Those three words keep coming up. They are presented as something close to a holy grail for Cheney. He has multiple experts hunted through legal tomes for arguments supporting the theory. However, it is not an ideological position so much as a practical one. It is a philosophy that hinges on the application of power not as a tool of morality or legality, but as an end of itself from which those other things flow.

Cheney is fond of this logic, as are the characters around him. “If the president does it, then it must be legal,” the narrator explains of the theory. It is no coincidence that Cheney and Rumsfield spent their first term at the White House under Richard Nixon. When characters around him grow uncomfortable with the treatment of detainees, Cheney helpfully explains, “The United States does not torture. So, by definition, this cannot be torture.” Cheney reverse-engineers the traditional understanding of morality and legality, rendering them instruments (rather than the basis) of power.

In it to Lynne it.

Befitting that approach, Vice presents Cheney and his family as characters who have forsaken even their own identities in pursuit of power and influence. Within the Cheney household, Dick is much more comfortable with his children than Lynne. He plays with them, he jokes with them. Lynne cannot get the macaroni and cheese to cook properly, but Dick understands the issue even over the phone. When Mary comes out to her parents, Lynne immediately does the political calculations while Dick rushes to reassure his daughter that he will always love her.

This is as close as Vice comes to sympathy for the Cheney family, but it also works as a grim and wry joke played on them. Lynne is ambitious and organised. The film makes the point that Lynne is a much better politician than her husband, to the point that she appears to have won the biggest election of his career while he was recovering from a heart attack. In contrast, Dick is nurturing and caring in a way that Lynne could never be. There is a sense that either would be happier living the other’s life, but the choices that they have made have left both deeply unfulfilled.

Oval officious.

That said, Vice is a also something of a horror story, revealing how thoroughly Cheney’s cynicism has warped and eroded the existing political structures, the damage wrought by a political operator without any central ideology but who also completely understood the power of an ideology to serve him. Vice anchors Cheney’s evolution in the broader context of shifting American culture during his ascent to the highest office. It is never clear how canny Cheney was in manipulating the political environment, but he certainly understood and encouraged it.

As with The Big Short, Vice is very invested in the structures and mechanics of broader culture as they enable and encourage moral lapses. Cheney’s story is intercut with brief meditations on the slipping living conditions of the American population, working longer hours for less pay and the development of multimedia infrastructure like Fox and the emergence of other minor factors like reality television. Vice teases the audience with the question of to what extent a figure like Cheney might be a product or the architect of such broader factors in American culture.

No more Mister Vice Guy.

Vice is elevated by a strong set of central performances. The film is often more invested in the big ideas around Cheney than it is in the man himself. However, McKay assembles a strong enough cast that they can anchor these characters as actual people, even with the film’s focus on the structures that are at work around them. Christian Bale is fantastic as Dick Cheney, understanding exactly what McKay requires of him in a given scene. Amy Adams is great as Lynne Cheney, creating a character much more interesting and engaging than most wives in these sorts of films.

Vice is a tremendous piece of work. It not so much a sketch of a man as a portrait of a world that he left shaped in his own image.

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