25 March 2019

First Impressions: VICE


We're still alive. Sort of.

I apologize that this blog has fallen quite a bit - there has been a lot going on in life that this has been pushed more towards the outside. But we haven't had a month go by in ten years where we haven't posted, so let's try to avoid that with a totally timely appreciation of the movie VICE (2018).

I saw VICE on Christmas Day. I hope to crank these out a little quicker, and we'll see how much of this I remember. It ranked in the Top 10 in a disturbing Adam McKay trend of writing really solid movies that are assembled together half-hazard as hell. Let's dive in with a solid speck of SPOILERS to discuss this three-month old movie.

Fool me once shame on you...heh...can't fool me again!

VICE centers around Dick Cheney, played here by Christian Bale in what's on the surface a phenomenal body transformation. Bale did real skinny for The Machinist (2004) and The Fighter (2010) and then real jacked for each Batman movie, it's about time he showed us he can just go old and fat as well. Sure, he paunched for American Hustle (2013), but this is impressive. Further than cramming McDonalds into his mouth, Bale also nails the voice, demeanor, and attitude of our 46th Vice-President. At this point we can say that he lost the Academy Award to Rami Malek, but the Academy seems to be awarding young male actors over older counterparts these days. To be fair, Rami's performance in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was also amazing.

Bale is the big centerpiece performance. Now that that discussion is out of the way let's talk some of this film's actual merit. Like I said, director Adam McKay in his foray into dealing with serious political subjects through an irreverent lens has earned him critical applause, but I'm more stricken with how much he seems to have departed his style. Step Brothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010) are completely bonkers movies filled with over-the-top characters, but directorially they're laser-sharp. A big reason these films work is from how grounded and assured the plots are. Despite heavy improvisation, everything gels and moves forward.

The Big Short (2015) and VICE disregard this for some reason. They are full of abrupt shifts in tone, plot, and setting, the former acting more like a series of interconnected vignettes rather than an in-depth look at the housing crisis. VICE is better - there is a core biography and a consistent running theme at its heart, but it blasts around like a crazy person. Some work, others fall flat. The Shakespeare scene really took me out of the picture, but the fake credits mid-way was brilliant. Regardless of what stuck and what didn't though, I'm still struck that McKay was never this meta-goofy in his straight comedies. I would rather see his full wit and satire on display than resorting to gimmicks.

The rest of the cast shines. Amy Adams is fine as Lynne Cheney, especially in one scene where she lowest common denominator campaigns for her ailing husband, where she riles up conservatives is easy to point to as an early origin of Republican fear-mongering. This is of course a little dubious, though, and the satire worked a little better when it was idiot Ron Burgundy creating the 24-hour News Cycle in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013). When McKay applies false or stretched facts to real figures it lessens the satire. This is also Adams and Bale's third collabo after The Fighter and American Hustle, which is bizarre.

Sam Rockwell is fine as George W., although it feels like a missed opportunity not to cast his muse, Will Ferrell. That might have been distracting, but as the film attempts to make a statement about the W presidency, his role isn't all that significant anyway. Rounding out the cast is Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, who is brilliant and somehow disappears into the role. I wish Carrell would get more serious looks as an actor, especially when he's having fun like this.

Let's get into the real meat of this film. One thing McKay lacks is subtlety - he flat out says in the beginning that the film attempts to scrutinize one of the most inscrutable political figures of our time, and wants to expose and examine Cheney for the crook and war criminal he is. Where the film succeeds the most is how it tries to show how Cheney was able to grab power, transform the Vice Presidency, and how smart and slimy politicians manage to weave their way around the law and Constitution to do just about whatever they like. Since Cheney won't fully admit to anything...ever...it's hard to know, or perhaps ever know how much of this film is true.

VICE also attempts to pin a lot of Trump-ism on Cheney, from his aforementioned fear-mongering wife, to investments in FOX News, to diving into an America-first never-ending war in the Middle East. Most of these issues and developments are too systematic and complex to pin on one man, but I give McKay credit for trying to connect some dots. Again, some of this is too forced to sustain credibility.

I also wish the film had come up with some way to decipher why Cheney did all that he did. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of discerning motivation throughout the whole movie. It's hard to understand why he kept pushing so hard beyond early scenes with his wife pushing him to be less of a drunken Wyoming idiot, and hinting that he simply likes to manipulate people and play the political chess game. My thoughts traveled to Errol Morris' The Unknown Known (2013), which attempted to understand Rumsfeld through a series of interviews. That film also ultimately came up with nothing. Is it as simple as oil profits? It's like our turn of the century leaders were Die Hard villains - yes, it's that simple. Money.

Why did I rank a movie this sloppy so high? There was lot here that stuck with me. Beyond Bale's instantly inconic Dick performance, I've dwelled on this quite a bit in the past three months, which is more than most films. I think often of the silent, thoughtful man in the room lying in wait as the true danger, while the more blustery politicians wear their intentions on their sleeves. I think of Cheney's coin toss decision to join the Republicans. I think of the fact that he was the rare Republican in support of gay marriage, which he seems to abandon to fully ingratiate himself in the conservative cause by the films' end. I think of the final shot, the least subtle in film history since The Departed (2006), that lingers on his black, diseased heart - suggesting that the subject of this film is literally heartless. That heart of course belongs to our narrator in a scene that I figured out right before it happened, but too late to not be shocked by the sudden impact and implication. Even though it reaches, it's also a film entrenched in modern politics.

It might be because I came of age around the 2000s, but the Bush Presidency and origins of the Iraq War also fascinates me. At the time what was presented to us seemed so simple and the depth of the lies revealed afterwards, along with the complete failure of anyone to take action is mind-blowing. There is an astounding lack of accountability and I fear that Trump mostly exists so that we may look back fondly on the Bush Era. VICE does help remind us that all these people are unambiguous war criminals and like the greed-driven banks in The Big Short, completely fine with destroying the country they serve for their own personal gain.

I'm excited for all the Trump movies that will come out over the next twenty years.

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