FULL POLITICAL DISCLOSURE: Because writing about these things always ends up with someone getting annoyed, I want to make it clear I’m as leftie as it comes without brandishing a hammer and sickle wherever I go. With that in mind, let’s talk about Vice.
When Phylidda Lloyd’s Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady was released back in 2011, it ended up falling flat with audiences on both sides of the political spectrum. For possibly the most divisive figure of 20th Century Britain, nothing in the film seemed interested in taking a side on either end of the argument, and as a result it was a dull mess with seemingly little to say.
For political biopics, that’s practically a cardinal sin, and it appears that political filmmakers across the pond have done their best to avoid any such indifference towards their subjects/targets. Nowhere is that clearer than in the recent filmography of Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers – to name a few. In 2015 he released The Big Short, a scathing dark comedy which told the story of the housing and financial crises of 2007, through a mix of straight dramatisation and fourth-wall breaking explanations of the more complex financial concepts via celebrity cameos. For instance, Margot Robbie explaining subprime loans from a bubble bath…
You get the idea.
In short, the whole thing was a novel way of explaining exactly what happened to cause the banks to meltdown in the late 2000s, while pinning the blame for everything unequivocally on one party. Not only was it a pleasant surprise come awards season, but it was a welcome departure for McKay whose brand of comedy was starting to get a bit old in the mid-2010s.
When it was announced that Adam McKay’s next target would be former Vice President of the USA Dick Cheney, more than a few pairs of eyes lit up at the prospect of one of modern history’s most notorious statesmen getting the Big Short treatment. Unfortunately, the end product might actually end up giving more ammunition to those on the more Conservative side of American politics.
Like The Big Short, Vice pulls no punches whatsoever when putting forward its central argument: that the administration of George W. Bush was nothing more than a puppet show for which Dick Cheney was pulling the strings, and that the actions carried out by said administration opened the gates for the current American political situation, and is directly responsible for whatever terrible things come next.
To give Vice its dues, it’s probably the best film about the Bush Administration to come out this decade. Unfortunately, while it tries really hard to make its subject matter relevant to today’s politics, McKay’s take on Dick Cheney’s political career feels at least 10 years late to the party. Almost nothing new is brought to the forefront, and the film’s punchline – that the theories Cheney sought to justify his efforts to grab unlimited executive power can be cited by any future president including (gasp!) Donald Trump – falls completely flat.
The whole thing feels like a first-year creative writing student saw Fahrenheit 9/11 for the first time, read a Wikipedia article on Dick Cheney and then wrote a script and got his mates to act it out. The fact that any performance in this film is being lauded is laughable, since all of the characters portrayed are done so with no nuance or depth whatsoever; it’s a pure caricature. Essentially, Vice is a C-Grade SNL sketch stretched out for 2 hours.
Worst of all, the film feels in no way authentic. Where The Big Short was clearly dramatised, it at least felt like an account of real people making decisions that upended the economy. In this film though, whenever the territory veers outside of that already heavily recorded, McKay simply adds in fictional events and hopes nobody will notice. That’s made crystal clear in the film’s opening card: while trying their best, Adam McKay et al just don’t have all the facts. For a film that is trying to cut through the bureaucracy of Dick Cheney, and especially in a time that truth is ever rarer in media, that’s simply unacceptable.
When there are real right-wing demagogues in the world right now trying to undermine truth and the mainstream media, it really doesn’t look good when a film like this comes out as a major release and awards contender, and is so fast and loose with the truth. But then again, it’s very likely that McKay simply doesn’t care.
The film knows exactly where its audience is, and is not interested in winning over anybody from the right. Sure enough, the film’s last shot is directly making fun of Conservative voters in a manner that can only be considered smug and elitist. It’s exactly the type of material that Fox News’ commentators and their ilk will cite against the “liberal media”, and will only make those who are already angry, angrier, with no real point made than “bad people bad”.
Going back to The Iron Lady for a moment, and while it’s still very much a dull mess as mentioned before, that film at least had the merit of focussing its aim on its central figure to create a character study, rather than an obsolete polemic that clutches at straws to attach relevance to the modern day.
And yet despite all of these flaws, Vice is still in the running to be considered the best film of the year. Maybe it’s a pure case of life imitating art, that a film about men failing upward in their careers finds itself with several nominations for the highest honours in cinema, but this just doesn’t sit quite right with me.
For The Oscars’ sake, I hope that voters share that unease.