Despite slick costumes and terrific performances, “VICE” falls flat.
As award season begins, multiple major directors, writers and actors will collaborate on some incredible films. One of the most attention-grabbing trailers late in 2018 was for “VICE.” The movie boasts a star studded cast and sees Adam McKay of “Anchorman,” “Stepbrothers” and “Ant-Man” fame direct a biopic about the 46th Vice President of the United States. “VICE” had an incredible amount of hype, and though it lived up to a lot of it, the film failed to hit all of the notes that it needed to be considered a great one.
“VICE’s” story focuses on the rise of Dick Cheney from a Yale law dropout to the most powerful man in the world. He served as Representative from Wyoming, Secretary of Defense, the CEO of Halliburton Company and Vice President for George W. Bush, who often yielded to Cheney’s political expertise on important matters. In that role, he ravaged the Middle East with the United States’ senseless invasion of Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives (a statistic the film makes clear). He also led a crackdown on civil liberties by breaching American citizens’ privacy and the torturing of those captured in the war on terror. The movie tries to capture all of this and it essentially succeeds in the realm of acting but comes up short in the writing sphere.
“VICE” juxtaposes those themes of his career, that of his power and his ruthless nature, with two key relationships — one with his wife Lynne Cheney, and the other with his political ally Donald Rumsfeld. Though George Bush is a pivotal figure in Cheney’s career, he is not given the preeminence of these two, since Lynne Cheney and Rumsfeld represent both his partner in life and his political mentor, respectively. What this dynamic does — the one between Cheney and his two closest confidants — is bring out funny and dramatically convincing performances from Christian Bale (Dick Cheney), Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney) and Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld). All three of these performances deserve an Academy Award, and with Bale’s success at the Golden Globes, it looks like they will get the appreciation they deserve. However, the structure and writing choices for “VICE” deserve no such accolades.
Let’s get one thing on the table; I loved “The Big Short.” Adam McKay’s comedic recounting of the 2007 housing market crisis explained a complex piece of recent history that never wanted in humor or intensity. Not only was the subject material, the largest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, important, but the film became more involved by focusing its narrative around a group of men who saw the signs of the crash before it happened. This focusing of a titanic topic was the biggest thing lacking from “VICE.” Like “The Big Short,” “VICE” found a compelling part of recent history that many Americans likely do not know the details of, but it lacked the kind of focus that “The Big Short” turned into an Academy Award-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay.
For “VICE,” the figure of Dick Cheney was always going to be the centerpiece of the film. The biggest decision was going to be whether to pare down the script to focus on one of three things: (1) his lack of charisma but determination and cunning to make it nonetheless; (2) the immense power he obtained while staying a considerably remote figure from the limelight; or (3) the ghastly amount of executive overreach and possible war crimes committed during his time as VP.
Cutting out the personal relationships theme made less sense with the kind of star-studded casts McKay employs in his recent history films. Instead of choosing one major theme and running with it while only hinting at the others, “VICE” tries too hard to go for all of the marbles and weave all three narratives into a succinct movie. What we get is a film bursting at the seams with too much happening.
All of this points toward the fact that McKay should have taken “VICE’s” major themes and subplots and made it into a mini-series, where he could have set the number of episodes for a longer, better-paced telling of the subjects. Still, “VICE” is a good movie due to the acting of its main trio, McKay’s comedic style and the compelling subject matter. It is disappointing to know that those great aspects would have likely translated to a medium where the writing is less constricted. I will no doubt rewatch the movie because it has some incredible moments, but I do hope that McKay’s next project resembles “The Big Short” more than his more troubled follow-up.