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Thread: VICE (Adam McKay 2018)

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    VICE (Adam McKay 2018)

    ADAM MCKAY: VICE (2018)

    The power of lead

    Adam McKay's clever and dazzling The Big Short (2015) used the methods of a series of Saturday Night Live skits to tell the story of the Great Recession. It wasn't as funny as it thought it was but it conveyed a lot of information. It was very well received. Now he is back with the story of Dick Cheney and his extraordinary seizure of power as Vice President under George W. Bush. It's a more monotonous topic and a less successful movie.

    The Big Short's many separate scenes with different people (Christian Bale and Steve Carell among them, back here with central roles as Cheney and Rumsfeld), gave an effect of variety. It's much grimmer to see Dick Cheney dominate the screen for two hours taking over the government. This is a strange film and a depressing one. Two hours of The Big Short was exhausting, but it sparkled. Two hours of Vice is informative but numbing.

    The Big Short was very smart; too smart for its own good, maybe. Vice has a lot of history to summarize but its concepts aren't so complicated. An explanation or slogan for what Cheney was doing is "the unitary executive theory." The subject of Vice, Dick Cheney, is intellectually as well as physically a monolith. For the role, Christian Bale has pulled one of his major weight-changes, putting on so much poundage he seems inert. His utterances are monotonous. He's depicted as a man who's largely non-verbal, bringing out his few words breathily in slow, staccato bursts. This is one of the most repellent protagonists of recent years. He's not fun to watch. There's no relief from his unvarying shtick.

    McKay has gone to great lengths to fake reams of documentary footage. The result seems amazing, if somewhat pointless. This story has a dead center, even though it's an immensely powerful one. But around Cheney, a lot is happening. First there is a review of presidents, starting with Nixon, moving on to Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior, and George W. Bill Clinton is overlooked, and Carter is an undesirable interlude for Republicans, neatly depicted by his solar panels on the White House, quickly removed as soon as Reagan moves in. We learn how Cheney, as well as Rumsfeld and others, wove their way in with all the Republican Presidents. All this history is interesting, appalling, and all-too familiar. How Cheney played a part in it all is worth reviewing: this is the portrait of a true Machiavellian.

    There is internal drama and some sympathy generated within Cheney's family. His wife Lynne (energetically played by Amy Adams) is a powerful figure in herself. You may not remember that she was Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities for seven years, and has written a number of books of a patriotic and right-wing bent. She, like Dick, opposed single-sex marriage when he was VP, to satisfy their base. Yet this is far from the whole story, because he is at his most sympathetic when we see their younger of two daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) come out to them as a lesbian and he declares his unhesitating love and support no matter what, and sticks to this position, protecting Mary despite the party's anti-gay stances.

    The film's key dramatic moment, however, comes when we see "W." beg Cheney to be his running mate and we hear the Leaden One agree, on condition that he be put in charge of, well, pretty much everything. "W." had initially been seen as a borderline pathetic drunk cavorting in the halls of Congress during his father's presidency, though Cheney can't be self-righteous. He himself had been kicked out of Yale for drunken behavior. When the "W." candidacy comes up, however, Cheney is scornful. He is making a ton of money as head of the Halliburton Corporation. Asked to be "W.'s" VP candidate, he's dismissive and his wife Lynne strongly urges him to avoid it - till he thinks of an angle. What if he was the secret president - and even more than that? Sam Rockwell's "W." is a caricature (if there's a difference), but Rockwell gives him a freshness and slightly dangerous innocence - his sparkle contrasting with Bale's leadenness - that makes the scene where they contract the agreement pop. It's spoiled by the editors, though, with too-clever inter-cuts of fly-fishing shots. (All the best scenes, or all you'd need to master this film's basically simple content, are included in the trailer.)

    There is a lot about 9/11 and the Iraq war: this is the section where the movie goes to the greatest pseudo-documentary lengths, staging Colin Powell's UN speech, for instance. and scenes of actors playing various cabinet members. You half expect them to restage the Twin Towers. Brain-numbingly tiny clips of actual archival footage of things like Abu Ghraib prison torture are cut in as well, adding to the film's feeling of excess. There is little consistency of tone or sense of whether comedy or mere mimicry is being striven for.

    The film makes strenuous efforts to be clever, breaking the fourth wall to seem self-reflective, with odd narrative voices. One of them is narrating to us into the camera, while jogging, talking about Cheney's notorious string of heart attacks and urgent need of a heart transplant, when he is abruptly struck down by a car in the middle of the street and killed. Someone behind me gasped. It's a crude, cruel joke. It's this unfortunate explainer's young heart that gets connected to Cheney, you see. This movie's thoroughness is its undoing, because in the end a shocking disquisition on the right wing's alterations in the power of the executive branch turns into little more than a disjointed series of skits about recent events of US history.

    Vice, 132 mins., premiered in Los Angeles 12 Dec. 2018, was released in the US on Christmas Day. Metascore 61.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-29-2018 at 03:31 PM.


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