Something’s been bothering me this whole movie, and I just figured it out…
I loved Vice, but it seemed to slip by everyone in the movie world, raising some hackles, receiving some congratulations, but generally untouched, like a film leper.
…the whole thing’s liberal. It’s got a liberal bias.
So I wanted to talk about why I loved it, despite the fact that it sticks its finger in an American open wound.
It’s all facts, right? I mean they had to vet all this with a lawyer, how does that make it liberal?
So let’s talk about Vice!
You would say that Lib-tard…
Is it a comedy or a drama?
A lot of people, based on reactions I have read, had trouble putting Vice in a place that allowed them to have a relationship with it. Was it supposed to be making a serious commentary on mistakes made by the Bush administration? Was it just a funny period comedy? Should I be learning, laughing, horrified? What is it? And how should I react to it?
I posed these questions, and now I am going to dodge them…somewhat. I think Vice is a dark comedy with a twist. Dark comedies are in vogue, throwing the spotlight on the absurdity in terrible situations (like the Iraq War) by finding ways to make us laugh at it. That is all well and good when the story is like Succession or Fleabag made up and, therefore, easier to laugh at. However, Vice is about real events… all too real… which makes it all the more difficult to find humor in its absurdity and terrible-ness.
This may be why I like it so much. Its jarring both in the content and in how it asks viewers to relate to it. At the very least we can say, from the all-seeing vantage point of the future, that what we know about the decision-making process for going into Iraq during the Bush Administration is uncomfortable at best, and the way Vice portrays the absurdity and silliness of such a grave act, reflects that uncomfortable nature.
How about Bale?
There are not many rolls that I can think of where I see the character the actor is meant to portray before the star actor who is portraying that character. Heath Ledger as Joker is the obvious, but I also think of roles like Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard in The Fugitive and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs where they just seem like the embodiment of the character they are playing, and I easily slipped into seeing the character first rather than the jarring moment of, ‘Oh there is Brad Pitt playing that character!’
In Bale’s case there are a couple reasons why. The first is that Christian Bale’s ability to embody a character on a physical plane is frightening. He becomes his characters in shocking displays of physical transformation and, more subtly, in body language and the way he carries himself. The overall effect is that I saw Dick Cheney before Christian Bale.
And then he speaks. And he delivers, and he interacts with other characters, and I heard that slightly weezy, belabored cadence that is now so synonymous with the King of the Darkside, and I was all in. Rather than forcing myself to suspend my disbelief, I needed reminding that this was not actual footage.
I would not go out on a film criticism branch to say this is Bale’s best performance, he has too many terrific others, but I will say it is my personal favorite.
Can you do that?
I love movies that are so self-aware that they break rules and get away with it. Movies that do stuff so bizarre that no one entertained the notion of doing it previously. Into the Spider-verse did it with animation for an entire film. Vice did it with a couple scenes.
The first scene was the false ending. They literally rolled the damn credits with an hour to go in the film. My theater became VERY uncomfortable, and I laughed too much. To find a unique way to point out how dramatic and impactful Dick Cheney was to American history by making us imagine that he had never come back after his heart attack and just quietly retired with his family was, to me, comedic brilliance. It also was stupid and should never have been done.
The other moment was the Shakespearean monologue as we pictured Dick and Lynne in their bedroom discussing the Vice Presidency and the opportunity it may provide for power and advancement in Dick’s career. This also seemed to throw my theater into some confusion, but the allusions to Shakespearian power struggles and politics as well as the stage-worthy delivery from Bale and Adams worked for me, making an awkward and random scene add to the significance of moments in modern history.
This isn’t unusual for Adam McKay (director). Just remember the breakout of Enya in The Big Short before Margot Robbie explained shorting the housing market while sitting in a bubble bath or go back and watch Talladega Nights or The Other Guys to see how he is always pushing the envelope to find the balance between funny and critical.
If it works for you, it really works for you. And if it doesn’t, I have to imagine it derails you from the entire film.
Is it politically unfair?
When a director makes a movie about politics, they invite another facet of criticism outside the bounds of the very robust criticism they will already receive for making a film. Vice was no exception and the railing against it often felt rooted in dislike for the politics of the film or the choices the film made considering that it dealt with politics.
Those criticisms aren’t unfair. Viewers should be allowed to bail on a film that chose to be about politics if they don’t like how it portrayed politics, because we don’t fault people for liking a film for the way it portrayed their politics (or at least we shouldn’t). But I would like to add a few pieces to the discussion to try and add clarity to some of the balance this movie tried to find amidst the political sides.
Bale speaks about a deal made between him and McKay, that he would try and portray Cheney in as positive a light as possible in order to try and balance a story that over time now portrays Cheney in a negative way. And while watching Vice, it is hard to not marvel at the brilliance of what Cheney did, and also respect some of the stands and decisions he made along the way. Bale’s portrayal made Cheney, maybe the most abstract figure in modern politics feel human. And that can be powerful.
Also, McKay and Bale both did the research necessary to tell this story. No one doubts the depths Bale goes to understand and portray a character complexly and fairly, but now he coupled with a director who also takes that role seriously. In this case, that is not the easiest rabbit hole to follow, considering how ‘in the dark’ everyone is on Cheney’s vice presidency (you know… the darkside and all that). But according to McKay “He and his team read every book available, and a journalist was hired to interview Cheney’s associates and friends off the record. And they obliged.” In every way possible McKay tried to be true to the facts of that period of our history.
Does that mean it is politically fair? Most certainly not, especially when there is such liberty taken in the comedic portrayal of the movie (including a menu of torture techniques to choose from), which never shines a positive light on the characters.
As the man in the focus group wearing a Keyshawn Johnson Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey (my personal favorite period determiner in any film), said at the end of the movie, “it’s got a liberal bias” directed by a man who is an outspoken Democrat. But come on people… that doesn’t mean half our population can’t watch it.
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