Vice: A Director Betrays His Own Film

Have you ever seen a film that felt like it was in the hands of the wrong director? Did you ever walk out of a movie feeling like you wasted your time on squandered potential? Has a movie’s editing ever pissed you off so much that you nearly left the theater? If so, then you know my exact sentiments about Vice.

Amy Adams as the astute Lynne Cheney

Dick Cheney is an interesting choice of character when it comes to creating a biopic. There’s no doubt the long term political figure has been endowed with controversy since his earliest years in Washington. His infamous contributions to the tragic Iraq War certainly make for an interesting premise. But despite excellent acting and presenting what could have been an intriguing narrative, director Adam McKay blatantly disrespects his cast’s abilities and bludgeons a compelling story with lazy, careless, and ghastly editing. While his signature directorial style was used to great effect to describe the 2008 housing crisis in The Big Short, it is used to an infuriating and deceitful degree in Vice.

The movie isn’t without some pros. Nearly every role has been perfectly cast. Christian Bale is fantastic as usual in portraying the titular Dick Cheney; it’s immediately apparent that he spent great effort to dive into Cheney’s psyche and portray realistic ideas based on his actions. Steve Carrel and Sam Rockwell are outstanding as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush (respectively), perfectly embodying their public images, and Amy Adams gives a compelling portrayal of Lynne Cheney. I would’ve loved to see this cast in a sincere, momentous biopic. But since the film began, I felt as though this high caliber cast was mislead into making a movie that was completely different from the final product, because every time I was engaged in their interactions, the moments were immediately squandered by obscene and senseless narration, and cuts of cheap stock footage and comparative imagery.

For example, while watching a camera track onto Cheney as he’s given cherry-picked intelligence reports, McKay cuts in random imagery of bombings and hyenas and all kinds of ridiculously on-the-nose footage. It’s supposed to be “stylistic”, but comes off as forcing his perfect scene concept down the audience’s throats. I was totally taken out of what could have been an unnerving but pertinent moment. I understood everything I needed to know simply through Bale’s delivery, I didn’t need McKay’s nonsense shoved in my face to get the picture. The same treatment was given to “Dubya”, who, as one might expect, is portrayed as falling to the wills of his cabinet members. Sam Rockwell does an excellent job to communicate this to the audience, he doesn’t need McKay to literally pause the movie to show a damn piece of chicken hanging loosely out of his mouth like an idiot. This whole aesthetic is made even worse by corny music and sound editing, used to an unnecessarily emphatic level to beat a dead horse in nearly every point of key development through the film.

What’s even worse than the aesthetic impact of this editing is the total lack of substantial political and historical context given to the audience. The War in Iraq, and ALL other preceding developments should have been introduced clearly and truthfully to the audience. What we’re given instead is this deplorable editing to over-simplify nearly every political development throughout Cheney’s various tenures. We’re given about 20 seconds of a 2 hour movie to be told that Republicans are evil. Most notably in the second quarter, the movie portrays their political success in the 80s as a result of their inherently shrewd villainy, as opposed to attributing any amount of blame on Jimmy Carter’s failures to recover America from economic crisis and inability to properly handle the fall of Iran to radical Islam (instead painting him to solely be this good guy who liked solar energy). If you’re going to paint a massive demographic of the United States in an evil political light, you’d better do it in a thought provoking manner beyond saying “the top 1% is bad” and “Republicans hate the environment”. The movie even goes so far as to end with a montage of literally every horrible thing that’s happened in the last 20 years in sequence, including Sandy Hook and the freaking California wildfires (which of course had NOTHING to do with the film), as if to place the blame on all of America’s banalities on the Republicans. I wasn’t expecting to see a fair, politically balanced film by any means, nor would I demand one, but the over-simplistic means in which it characterizes the entire right as being a sinister band of evil power mongers is shameful.

Perhaps the film’s most egregious crime is it’s depiction of “Unitary Executive Theory”. McKay introduces the concept via a cartoonish schoolboy portrayal of Antonin Scalia, who tells the audience that its essentially an interpretation of the law that allows the Vice President to do “whatever the hell he wants” without judicial or executive regulation, with the end result being that any and all actions by the President/VP are totally legal. The film brings up this argument repeatedly. Its an outright lie; the theory in reality emphasizes the vesting clause of Article II of the US Constitution, which says that executive power is vested through the President, including delegation authority, and that Congress is not responsible for the direct conduct of his/her actions. It does NOT mean that the President is immune to legal challenge or any Congressional intervention. While this theory is accepted as valid by most law professionals in the US, it has of course been historically manipulated to endow the executive office with excessive power. This doesn’t give McKay the right to tell the audience that the entire belief is nefarious, nor should he have gotten away with completely lying about the theory’s true meaning.

Through this veil of horse crap post production, I saw the formulations for what could have been a half-decent film. The entire cast treated the content seriously, even if the script was darkly comical, and that’s evident by how thoughtfully they portrayed their monumental characters. But all this effort is put to waste by Adam McKay. Its as if he took the film that the cast and crew thought they made into the cutting room and turned it into a glitter covered scrapbook, forcing us to read it while he obnoxiously blurts out his own descriptions of what’s happening in the pictures. The actions of Dick Cheney and the Bush Cabinet are absolutely worthy of critique, but McKay’s approach was clearly an inappropriate way to do so. The cast didn’t deserve this treatment, and it’s disrespectful to the utmost degree to the audience. Whether you’re on the left or right, Vice is a travesty, which will undoubtedly be forgotten faster than it stays in theaters. 2.7/10