* ½ (out of 4)
After Michael Moore, Adam McKay is easily the closest thing Hollywood has to a resident democratic socialist. In McKay’s last film, The Big Short, he dissected Wall Street’s role in the 2008 financial crisis with such vehemence that he earned the praise of Bernie Sanders himself. Now, in Vice, McKay takes aim at Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), the former vice president who – to hear McKay tell it – was directly responsible for the dumbing-down of public discourse, the exacerbation of climate change, the erosion of American democracy, and the deaths of thousands of Americans in counterproductive foreign interventions.
The first thing you’ll notice about Vice is its brazen insistence on provoking you. For instance, McKay doesn’t just say that Americans have become oblivious to long-term structural problems; rather, to make his point clear, he uses the famous image of a man lawn-mowing during a tornado. Additionally, the film’s editing uses juxtaposition with a zeal that would’ve made Sergei Eisenstein proud. In one characteristically uncompromising scene, there’s a shot in which President Bush (Sam Rockwell) is shown shaking his leg while giving a laudatory speech about the American invasion of Iraq. In a clear jab at Bush’s tone-deafness, the film then immediately cuts to a shot of an Iraqi civilian who’s shaking his leg while being bombed by American planes.
As you might expect, McKay’s unsubtle methods have proved quite divisive. Some have praised the film as a “savage satire,” while others have instead called it a “spastic mess.” Yet no matter whether you like it or not, this is the rare film that won’t leave you indifferent: with its insistence on condemning every aspect of Cheney’s public career, it proudly compels you to take a side. If nothing else, then, McKay deserves credit for his willingness to offend our sensibilities. In terms of his attitude, you might even say that McKay is a spiritual successor to Jean Vigo, the French filmmaker who famously called for a “social cinema” that “deals with provocative subjects, subjects that cut into flesh.”
The problems with Vice, however, lie not so much in its intentions as in the self-contradictory arguments those intentions advance. Although McKay tries to make a lot of points in the film, two ideas stand out in particular. First, to convince Americans to support the Iraq War, Cheney promoted the use of simplistic but market-tested slogans – remember “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”? – at the expense of thoughtful intellectual debate. Second, Cheney’s commitment to expanding executive authority at all costs undermined the stability and health of American democracy.
Unfortunately, in both of these cases, McKay ironically adopts the very faults he criticizes in Cheney. To start, his denunciations of Cheney’s intellectual simplicity rely on a faulty understanding of why Cheney and Bush wanted to invade Iraq in the first place. To hear McKay tell it, Cheney was a real-life Frank Underwood, a self-aggrandizer guided less by conviction than by a burning desire to be in “the room where it happened.” Because of this, the Iraq War comes off looking like a quasi-whimsical exercise in egotism, as though all Cheney wanted to do was show off his newfound power by occupying a foreign country.
Needless to say, this analysis of the Iraq War proves woefully simplistic. It ignores the fact that Cheney was informed by his long-standing belief in neoconservatism, an influential foreign-policy doctrine that had many followers in the Bush administration (e.g. Cheney himself, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz). Moreover, McKay also overlooks the fact that the Iraq War was in some ways just the most obvious manifestation of what Barry Posen has called “liberal hegemony,” an interventionist and exceptionalist doctrine that has consistently guided American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
All in all, then, McKay reduces a conflict with deep intellectual and historical roots to a self-interested act of chest-thumping. Such a simplistic analysis would be problematic by itself. But it’s especially egregious when you consider that McKay is relentlessly critical of Cheney’s intellectual superficiality. Put differently, McKay excoriates the Bush administration for “duping” Americans with intellectually simplistic arguments. But he himself uses intellectually simplistic arguments to advance those critiques, and the overall film feels hypocritical as a result.
Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, Vice also criticizes Cheney’s undisguised scorn for democratic norms. Among the many accusations that McKay makes, he claims that the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore was tainted by Cheney’s friendship with Antonin Scalia; that Cheney ran roughshod over international and domestic laws when dealing with captured terrorists; that Cheney preferred to manipulate public opinion instead of listening to it; and that he adamantly refused to let public opposition to the Iraq War dictate his thinking (as captured during a 2008 interview with Martha Raddatz).
The sad irony, however, is that McKay himself doesn’t have much faith in democracy either. For instance, in an early shot of people partying at a disco, the voice-over narration oozes with disdain as it notes that Americans dislike “complicated analysis of…government.” In later scenes depicting the focus group sessions that Cheney purportedly relied on to sell the Iraq War, moreover, the war’s supporters are ridiculed as dimwitted rednecks who claim, “We’ve got to f*** someone up!” And when the film discusses Frank Luntz’s infamous reframing of the estate tax as the “death tax,” it portrays ordinary Americans as gullible, brainless idiots who can easily be fooled into supporting things they don’t actually want.
There’s certainly much to criticize about Cheney’s actions in office. Many of his decisions reeked of short-sighted hubris, and he had a disturbing fondness for the unitary executive theory. Yet even as Vice calls out Cheney for his contempt for democracy, it displays an equally apparent and equally off-putting scorn for ordinary Americans – namely, the people who make democracy work in the first place. In the past, McKay has adamantly rejected the “Hollywood elite” label that politicians like Donald Trump love to exploit. But in a testament to McKay’s arrogance, Vice often feels like it was made by a card-carrying member of that very group.
In the weeks since Vice’s release, McKay hasn’t been coy about how much he despises Bush and Cheney. As he made clear during an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in fact, he views the two of them as even more monstrous than Trump:
“That was a strange thing for me to see when people started saying, ‘I miss Bush because of Trump.’ It’s like, ‘Really?’ That has actually just made me sad. Really what it shows is there’s a portion of the country that just wants the presidency to appear like it’s functioning. Because all you’re missing is that Bush and Cheney made it look a little bit like it was normal. Because obviously what they did is so much more monstrous, with nearly a million people dead, a country invaded for no reason, torture brought back — these horrible, horrible things.”
Sadly, McKay’s attempts to translate this disgust into film largely fall flat. Despite its admirable belief in the value of provocation, Vice can’t even begin to make an intellectually coherent argument without shooting itself in the foot. Worse, it does all this with an attitude that’s nothing if not haughty, dismissing ordinary Americans even as it claims to value them. In making this film, McKay may have wanted to promote the purported virtues of democratic socialism, especially in contrast to the dangers he sees in Cheney’s conservatism. But I suspect even someone like Sanders would be turned off by the shoddy, slack methodology that characterizes Vice from start to finish.
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell
Running Time: 132 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language and some violent images.”
Produced by: Adam McKay, Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick
Written and Directed by: Adam McKay