Vice is packed with super-famous faces and personalities stepping in to play famous — or, depending on your perspective, eminently infamous — real-life faces and people, and the results can be distracting. There’s not one bad actor here, and in fact the acting is far and away the best thing about this movie, but there’s also the issue of, say, Steve Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld, at varying stages of his life. It’s impossible to forget you’re actually looking at Steve Carell. The same goes for Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.
On the other hand, Christian Bale is astonishing as Dick Cheney, the unremorseful, power-hungry Vice President we came to know and hate during the Bush Junior Era. He gained 45 lbs for the part, shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows, and adopts an almost creepily accurate half-sneer, half lip-curl, even in the scenes from Cheney’s earlier years. No one else in this movie packed with famous actors is more famous than Bale, and yet Bale makes the most impressive achievement: he makes you believe you’re actually looking at Dick Cheney.
The same goes for the incredible Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush himself, who plays a smaller part in this story than you might expect, but still an obviously vital one, given, you know, history. There are moments in Vice where Rockwell’s performance moves into the realm of uncanny. A couple of times his look and manner are so spot on that I actually thought to myself, Holy shit.
Amy Adams is equally as impressive as Dick’s wife, Lynne Cheney, even though she isn’t quite as readily known as a personality on the national stage. Regardless, Adams plays her as a woman so deeply committed to he ideas of the righteousness of conservative values, it’s subtly unsettling.
But does a pack of amazing acting performances alone make a worth movie seeing? In the case of Vice, I’d say . . . maybe?
Because the thing is, this movie is fucking depressing. Surely it’s a story that should be told, but is 2018 the right time to tell it? I am not quite convinced. A movie like this would probably play better — do Democrats like myself, anyway — during any era besides the Trump Era, as it would leave audiences with at least a vague sense of relief: the idea that things aren’t this bad anymore. But instead, they are worse, and the current state of our country can be directly traced to Dick Cheney’s time in the white house, and his work on consolidating and expanding Executive power and overreach.
In other words, Vice demonstrates to us how and why things are so fucked up right now. Does that sound like fun to you? Admittedly, I would never say that “fun” is an absolute prerequisite for all film. We need to know all this stuff; the country is far too easily distracted from it by the catatonic effect of popular culture in general; this is clearly what writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) is telling us. But this kind of messaging is a little cheapened by the parlor trick nature of the performances in this movie, however impressive they may be.
Vice also has an air of “cool” in its stylized editing and cinematic in-jokes, from the psych-out “end credits” in the middle of the film, to Dick Cheney ultimately breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge our judgment and then pointedly refuse to apologize for anything. The dialogue is occasionally a little oversimplified (somehow I doubt Lynne Cheney ever literally said “That’s just how it is for us girls” to her daughters), but this is one of several moments weighted in hard truths.
One can only assume McKay is playing to liberal audiences by characterizing the Cheneys as callous and heartless, with the one curious exception of their acceptance of one daughter being gay — a complication that only gets more darkly complicated as familial relationships evolve from there. I could also easily see hardline conservatives watching this movie and rooting for Dick the entire way. Vice feels like a movie made just to give people permission to be cynical. It certainly got me thinking about how much shame there is in American legacy, the hypocrisy behind so-called national pride.
So what Adam McKay has given us is an expertly acted, moderately well-written, and ultimately deeply depressing movie I can’t imagine recommending to anyone specific at all. The question has been posed of Vice: Who is this movie for? As impressive as it is on multiple levels, that’s just a question for which I have no answer.