“Vice comes off as a boys’ club that has its heart in the right place but ultimately succumbs to its own self-importance.”
Title: Vice (2018)
Director: Adam McKay 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Adam McKay 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
When I ambled in to watch Vice, the last film to check off my list of Best Picture nominees to see before tomorrow’s 91st Academy Awards, I didn’t anticipate that I would leave the movie early. I haven't done that since Dumb and Dumber in 1994. But lord help me, this rambling film was so damned boring.
To be fair, I already knew going in that Vice wouldn’t be to my personal tastes. I have no interest in rehashing the Bush-Cheney years; I remember them well, as a college student who’d paid attention to the Iraq War and to our country’s transparent goals of usurping Iraq’s oil reserves during the ostensible “war on terror”. And having lived through 9/11, the use of its harrowing footage will always feel exploitative to me unless treated with the nuance it deserves—something Vice doesn’t seem interested in. Rather, the human tragedy serves as a convenient plot device to show off the brilliant strategic mind of Dick Cheney.
So, Vice was never going to be a favorite of mine, but I thought it could be an interesting slice of history for younger Millennials or Gen Z teenagers whose memories of these years look a bit fuzzier. Unfortunately, having seen the film now—and don’t worry, I watched the rest of it at home so this is a complete review—it fails to be the cautionary tale I think director Adam McKay wanted to it to be. Instead, his film stumbles into an accidental redemption arc for Dick. He wags his finger at the man but never manages to hide his overt awe at Dick’s searing ruthlessness. And the film overcompensates for its pointed reprisals of him by painting him as a wonderful family man. The overall effect muddles McKay’s already-confused thesis about what Vice is trying to say about its primary subject.
Is this actually an indictment of a man who ushered in the murder of 600,000 Iraqi civilians, as one of its title cards state? Or is it a humanizing tale that paints Dick as an ingenious anti-hero who loves his wife and who reacted perfectly when his gay daughter came out to him? Reality might show that it’s a little bit of both, but the fictional movie ping pongs back and forth between both extremes and never gels into a consistent character study.
Finally, this discombobulated story gets spit-shined through stylistic quirks like a mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons) who talks incessantly—I’m not going to lie, the never-ending voiceover played an integral role in me leaving my seat—or through fake credits that roll through the middle of the film before snapping back to our history’s timeline like a record scratch. But instead of being witty and sly, the razzle dazzle feels empty. At worst, it comes off just as smug and self-satisfied as the politicians McKay seeks to mock.
Amy Adams impresses, as always, and her role as Lynne Cheney pokes holes in the assumption that politicians’ wives are mere arm candy. McKay gives us an interesting portrayal of Dick’s wife as an ambitious woman who was born infinitely cleverer than her husband, but whose opportunities got cut short by society’s manacles on women. However, Lynne simply doesn’t receive enough narrative support to garner a higher score in this category.
For example, despite sharing multiple scenes with her two daughters, Lynne never speaks to them about anything but their father. Literally just one scene passes the Bechdel Test in the entire, 2+ hourlong film. During a large family meal, women idly chat with each other but they’re largely offscreen as the camera roves across the head of the table, where Dick reigns like a benevolent king.
Visually, Lynne appears eerily alone in a film subsumed by white men, like a dystopia where only Republican politicians remain. Even when she takes to the road to campaign for her husband, the crowds she riles up are made up of predominantly white men, but in cowboy hats instead of suits. Make no mistake, Vice is made for men, by men, and about men. One relatively complex woman in a supporting role does not obscure that fact.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 10% of key cast and crew members were POC.
In a massive surprise to no one, people of color are absent from Vice. Only Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) and Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) receive multiple scenes, and their characters are flattened into irrelevance. In comparison, white male politicians like Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), or even the ever-droning voice of the film’s everyman narrator, Kurt (Jesse Plemons), receive more scrutiny than the cardboard cut-outs of Powell and Rice.
In a sense, Middle Eastern men do exist through archival footage of either turban-wearing terrorists or naked prisoners of Guantanamo Bay tortured by American soldiers. Goody.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.25
I was interested to see how McKay would tackle the family dynamics surrounding Mary Cheney (Alison Pill), Dick’s daughter who is gay and who has been with her now-wife, Heather Poe, since 1992. Thankfully, he treats the topic fairly and refrains from bending the facts to suit his narrative—a tactic that fellow Best Picture nominee, Bohemian Rhapsody, would have done well to adapt.
That said, instances of Mary’s sexuality only come up twice and feel more like devices to flesh out either Dick’s characterization as a loving father, or to dutifully show the real-life conflict between Mary and her sister Liz (Lily Rabe) who denounced gay marriage during her 2013 bid to win a Senate seat.
Overall, the inclusion of this real-life character is important to Dick’s story but hardly moves the needle on lesbian representation.
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.83/5
Writer Britt Hayes likens Vice to an SNL cold open, and the analogy works perfectly. The film’s star-studded cast detracts from the potential poignancy of Vice, helped in no part by the wobbling tone that vacillates between roasting its characters or presenting them serious, dramatic fashion. In the end, Vice comes off as a boys’ club that may have its heart in the right place but ultimately succumbs to its own self-importance.