VICES of Power

Spoilers for Vice.

Vice is both brilliant and frustrating.

As a big, big, big fan of The Big Short and Anchorman, I was ridiculously excited for Adam McKay’s next political docu-drama, Vice, focusing on George W. Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney. The Big Short proved that McKay’s move from comedy to political filmmaking (or rather, his move to making comedies about politics) was a resounding success, crafting an electric, fun and harrowing movie about the financial crisis, a subject not known for its comedic value.

Even though the Bush Jr. Administration seems ripe ground for cinematic humiliation – and ripe for more critical success – Vice has had a somewhat mixed response, scoring 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. Certain that all the critics were just wrong and dumb, I was ecstatic ahead of my screening on Monday, but in the days since, I’ve gone back-and-forth over my relationship with the movie (as the opening words suggest). It is, like its predecessor, energetic, charged by some fantastic performances; not a single actor turns in sloppy work, but particular emphasis must, as ever, be given to Christian Bale once again undergoing such a dramatic physical transformation.

But as a film, Vice remains polarizing for its eclectic structure, producing a screenplay that frustrates more often than not. I don’t disagree with this critique, but it’s also this style which enables Vice to stand out from the crowd and allows McKay to comment on the nature of power.

Innumerable humans throughout history have been attracted to power and have allowed it to corrupt them – but for what purpose? Power, in of itself, is immaterial and fleeting and can be even more so without principles to justify actions. Power is the means, not the ends, which is what makes Dick Cheney’s depiction in Vice so perplexing. To begin with, he is nothing: an alcoholic who got kicked out of Yale and is on the verge of being kicked out by his partner, Lynne. After a thorough bollocking from her, he promises to do better and earn her love again. The next time we see him, he’s got an internship in Washington D.C.

This is where my main problem with Vice lies because there are two Dick Cheney’s on display. One is a loser with seemingly no interest in making something of himself, or, at least, no ability to conceive of what he could become. The other is somebody who could successfully obtain an internship in Washington, no mean feat. What happened in-between? The status of Lynne’s speech as the mid-point between these events suggests it was her alone which prompted Cheney to work hard, but why go for Washington? There is no suggestion of even a passing interest in politics prior to this. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why Cheney stays there.

We can make our own assumptions about Cheney’s reasoning. With so much of the film dedicated to debating power (the key line of dialogue from the trailer being Lynne’s – “when you have power, people will always try to take it from you”), perhaps Cheney’s powerlessness in his old life gave way to the urge to obtain power and rid himself of demons. Maybe it is all just to make it up to Lynne. Maybe it’s the mistreatment of power as the ends and not the means.

“So, uh… what do we believe?” Dick Cheney asks Donald Rumsfield, gloriously played by Steve Carrell, who proceeds to burst out laughing for several minutes and leaves the question unanswered.

McKay’s Republicans believe in nothing except power itself. The ability to act is the desired goal, rendering the conflict one of removing obstacles to exercising power, prompting the entrenchment of the unitary executive theory, an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution which posits that if the President does it, it’s legal. McKay is a man of principles, in recent years coming out as a left-wing, Bernie-supporting Democrat, so it is unsurprising that power-hungry Republicans are a fascinating subject for him.

I haven’t seen an awful lot of discussion (yet) on the visual metaphors and structure of Vice, but to me, they felt like McKay’s way of understanding how an individual can treat power as the end goal. Not only does the film cut between different time periods with ease (it begins on 9/11, then heads to Cheney’s youth, then the 1970s, goes back to 9/11 later on, and so forth). There is always a great debate within film academia on the auteur theory – the extent to which a film is the product of a singular artist, or whether it’s a collective effort. As Vice refuses to be beholden to conventional filmmaking, it feels like a statement on McKay’s behalf: “this doesn’t fit in your boxes because I don’t want it to.”

Delving deeper, McKay frequently misrepresents the events unfolding on screen, or presents them in an unconventional way. In one instance, the Cheney’s speak to one another in Shakespearean soliloquies; the film “ends” in the middle of the movie with a fake happy-ever-after; when the film appears to really end, Cheney tells the viewer, “I can feel your recriminations and your judgement. And I am fine with it.” Then, when the film does really end, characters in a political focus group realise that they’re in a movie and start beating each other up.

Each of these scenes, bar Cheney’s direct address, elicit laughter, reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s narrator in The Big Short (Vice also has a narrator, played by Jesse Plemons) and Margot Robbie’s explanations of the financial crisis in the bath. Whereas The Big Short’s primary aim with these was to make the subject funny and accessible for viewers, here it feels more like an exercise in McKay’s own power as the writer-director.

Can we trust anything we see in Vice? The opening text of the film makes clear that you can’t, wholeheartedly, because “Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history, but we did our fucking best.” And while the fake scenes are very obviously fake, their existence raises the question of whether anything else in Vice is intentionally misleading. We’re conditioned to place unquestioned faith in the storyteller’s veracity, so what happens when the storyteller chooses to lead us astray within their own tale?

Whether this is a quality in of itself is up to you. Much like Dick Cheney himself, Vice‘s use of power has been controversial, and will no doubt continue to spark debate for many years to come.

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