A sprawling assault on the senses that doesn’t so much try to make sense of Dick Cheney’s life as it does serve as much a smorgasbord of his life, and how it affected the lives of others, as it could in its 130 minutes. Director/writer Adam McKay comes off a high with the success of his previous film, “The Big Short”, with its unconventional, YouTube-compilation-slash-star-studded-music-video style that eschewed typical film structures for however it could be as information-dense yet understandable as possible, with requisite cutaways, graphics gags, celebrity cameos, and so on. “Vice” continues in that style but employs it even more relentlessly, as it grapples with conveying slivers of Cheney’s life. The man himself was personally reserved enough that the film largely treats his inner workings as unknowable, even irrelevant, beyond devoting to not disappoint his wife, and naked greed and hunger for power typical of those like him.
The scope of the film is so huge that events that’d have been extremely relevant and in tune with what it’s trying to accomplish are either completely skipped over, or compressed to under thirty seconds of screentime. The film doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive, and McKay’s commitment to the relentless, endless style of what the film presents (always with the understanding that there’s even more under the hood) generally works, but it does stand out that moments when the film catches its breath for a moment are more memorable than the general onslaughts of information, even as entertaining as those onslaughts might be. A match cut between Bush’s nervous shuddering leg as he declares effective war on Iraq, and the nervous shuddering leg of a father of an Iraqi family as they’re bombed, is more memorable than shallow waves of intercutting footage about the Haliburton corruption. There are lots of nice little touches (the split diopter shot with both the present and the past together, communicating Lynne Cheney’s backstory, or the various ways McKay used water imagery), but they’re easy to lose amongst the relentless assault of images.
When McKay focuses his signature irreverent, cutting style on Cheney and his ilk, the film works. A particular structural conceit with the narration does a good job of hammering home the hopeless inhumanity of men like him continue to prosper despite everything one would consider at least a setback to them. Where things get shakier is the tone towards the audience itself. Some scenes were perhaps intended as self-deprecating about the film’s “liberal bias”, but often come across as more dismissive of the audience in general, which is a poor look for a Hollywood film. The opening narration of the film seems sympathetic with how crushing capitalism is to workers, and how those in power benefit from the general exhaustion of the population, how that enables them to act with some version of apparent implicit consent from the population given that it’s not really making any active overtures to remove their power (the film does shine a light on the denigration of American news and the media in general, to its credit). But the characterisation of the populace, particularly in the footage used and the entire midcredits scene, as dopey feels bitter and condescending in a way that feels more like the patronising attitudes of those depicted in the film, than any kind of salve or call-to-action for those actually watching it.
From the sounds of interviews, it seems McKay cut footage that would’ve aligned the film closer to his own perspective, widening it in the process – ““I hope to God that [the film is a ‘corrective to liberal amnesia’; a repudiation of the idea Bush and Cheney weren’t so bad, especially in contrast with Trump]. Really what that [attitude] shows you is the number of people for whom government is just about appearance. Bush and Cheney just kept up the facade, whereas this administration doesn’t even remotely pretend. So when I hear people say, ‘I miss the days of Bush and Cheney,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I miss the days when people would at least pretend.’ Every time I see it, I shake my head, like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. The world economy collapsed, we had the greatest military fiasco in U.S. history apart from Vietnam’”. In a film like this, haphazardly charting a man’s life, various events he was a huge part of, and various issues in general (denigration of mainstream media, the utility of dogwhistling, the crest of neoconservatism, the ideation of power in the west, the corruptive influence of think tanks, tax reform, etc.) there isn’t the sort of focus “The Big Short” had, in being lasered in on the broad details of one specific event. So a lot of what McKay might’ve been trying to communicate one way or another gets lost. The film says interesting things, in a very interesting style, but it’s all so big that to chew off what it bit was probably never even in the question. Three and a half cameos, and a rotted heart.