When the 2019 Academy Award nominees were released in late January, many people were excited about who and what was being considered for an Oscar in the different vital and sometimes overlooked categories that make filmmaking possible. But of course, the highlights are the nominees for Best Picture, representing the best movies had to offer for the year. At the last couple ceremonies, however, the voters have given this prestigious title to worthwhile but not excellent pictures. Last year it was Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The previous year, it was Barry Jenkin’s debut, Moonlight. Both films confused and shocked people because of how many superior alternatives were snubbed, and this year is no different. One film that stands out is Adam McKay’s Vice, which split the opinions of most critics. Typically, the Oscar nominees for this category are critically praised, but this and Bohemian Rhapsody were exceptions, as they were both poorly received; Vice sits at only sixty-six percent on the Tomatometer. With a body of work including the cult classic Anchorman and the more recent political satire The Big Short, it was exciting to see what McKay could do next. What makes him unique is his natural ability to create hilarious, clever comedy that never feels agenda-based, even with Short. But with Vice, McKay hits far out of left field (no pun intended) in his slant of negativity towards Republicans, specifically the second Bush Administration, losing the charm of what made his films enjoyable. He chooses to destroy Cheney’s reputation rather than simply mocking him, turning a potentially insightful biopic into little more than a witch hunt.
Being 17 and a Gen-Z kid, and without trying to plead ignorance, this won’t be about the accuracy of the film’s subject, because this is not the right place or time to debate that issue. For the sake of a review, what matters is the merit of the film’s artistic qualities, such as editing, cinematography, and writing.
The following is a true story.
Or as true as it can be, given that Dick Cheney is known as
one of the most secretive leaders in history.
But we did our f––king best.
These are the opening lines of the film, which properly prepare the audience for what they are getting themselves into. This film is guilty of changing some of its material, which is not a negative if done correctly – other biopics have done just that. However, Vice only comes across as being ignorant and manipulative (as does Rhapsody). Not all biopics need to be held to certain standards of accuracy, but flat-out assuming or even lying about integral plot points hurts the project more than anything. McKay has even acknowledged that this film is not entirely accurate in its depiction of the VP, making the film’s purpose and motives rather questionable. Is it made to throw mud at Republicans, at the man himself, or both? And who is the main target audience of this to begin with? Those questions are left mostly unanswered, because as the plot progresses, it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Although many of the viewpoints explored are most likely biased, what is apparent is just how heartless Cheney’s character is portrayed as being, further questioning how much of what viewers see is real or if it only exists for shock value.
The first shot opens with a younger Dick getting arrested for a DWI, revealing his alcoholism and lack of self-control. This is followed up by a scene showing how constant brawls at the bar lead to him flunking Yale. As the film continues, the camera follows Cheney as he climbs the social hierarchy of the political world, which further reveals what a morally corrupt man he is. McKay attempts to communicate a “powerful” message that unchecked authority, abuse of power, and shady tactics (stay with me) are bad. Most people understand that politicians can become hardened to the plight of others and, instead of serving the people under them, choose to use their positions for their own gain. Audiences have seen many smarter (and better) films about corrupt officials, making this film nothing special or even close to deserving of the amount of awards buzz it’s getting. And this is not the only time Vice decides to dumb its audience down. What really plagues this biopic is how it also makes Cheney out to be a Machiavellian, one-dimensional cartoon villain akin to Wile E. Coyote, instead of a person with many layers of complexity.
Bale gives an unrecognizable performance once again as the former vice president, easily nailing the mannerisms and cold demeanor the actor is trying to replicate, but it’s really hampered by the material he is given, making his character come off as dull. The supporting cast members, including Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, all give fairly nuanced interpretations of their real-life counterparts as well, but are not utilized as much as they should be, considering how talented they are. Something worth noting is Rockwell’s depiction of Bush, which is also too comical to be real. He is depicted as a spoiled rich kid, only seeking his dad’s approval and acting as a puppet in the hands of a relentless Cheney.
The editing and style of this film is quick and flashy but still hollow, with a narrator (Jesse Plemons) spoon-feeding the audience Cheney’s life just like The Big Short. This time, though, it’s really unnecessary. The editing is constantly pausing to reveal found footage and pictures through quick cuts, and this jumping around doesn’t allow the story to prioritize and focus on certain topics, allowing them to be fleshed out, as his previous film did. In that project, it was exhilarating to watch the exploits of greedy men unfolding on screen. The characters were still likable and complex, no matter how ruthless they were. In Vice, they are nothing more than black-and-white caricatures, making them very forgettable. The film seems unsure of what it wants to be – a drama, a black comedy, or a mockumentary – resulting in a collage of all three, which only serves to hurt the tone.
The cinematography, on the other hand, is standard enough, and it doesn’t really do anything special to improve the look of the movie, which is quite a letdown. The camera could help immerse viewers into the film’s corrupt world, but for some reason, McKay chooses to keep them at an arm’s length, which reduces any chance of investment. By presenting different facts so quickly, the film looms over the audience, acting very pretentious, expecting them to believe everything because of how smart it looks. The closing title cards make very large claims in an attempt to justify the film’s existence, but these still fall flat because of how hard it strives to win the audience over for the entire runtime. This had the potential to be a great social commentary diving deeper into the themes it only hints at, but the constant weight of flawed writing and overdone stylization, along with a very biased approach to Cheney, keep Vice from being the film it could have been. McKay has proved his great comedic talent with his earlier works, but here he chooses to put political bias in front of comedy, resulting in yet another mostly generic, by-the-numbers, Oscar bait biopic people will easily forget within a few years.