Fly-fishing is a challenging sport that necessitates a willingness to fail over and over again. It is an endeavor that requires infinite patience and cunning. It also requires the ability to read the river’s cues to determine where the haul might be most plentiful, and it often takes years of practice until one has achieved an expert, arcing cast, that can hook the perfect catch. It would seem the ideal sport to prepare one to navigate the brackish, infected swamp that is Washington D.C. politics.
It’s an easy metaphor Vice uses to help illustrate how a man with no discernable public service aspirations, questionable people skills, and a faulty moral compass that only points to the most shamelessly opportunistic outcomes can quietly rise to the most powerful position in the White House short of the presidency itself.
Vice attempts to tell the story of former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most divisive and reviled politicians in modern American history. He was also one of the most secretive, a fact writer/director Adam McKay reminds us with the film’s opening scroll which warns, “we did our fucking best”. And he, along with his cast and crew, certainly did do their best to provide us with some semblance of a biography of Cheney, while drawing a distinct line between his tactics and the slow degradation of Republican party values, which lead to the current situation the party and the presidency find themselves in today.
McKay, who won an Oscar for chronicling the 2008 financial collapse inThe Big Short, employs similar narrative tactics in Vice to help us navigate through decades of U.S. politics – characters directly addressing the camera, whip-fast pacing, and weaving footage of actual historic events into the story. It is a distinct, energetic style which worked beautifully when illustrating the labyrinthine and purposely confusing world of Wall Street. But in trying to describe Cheney, a man whose misdeeds are still so fresh in our collective memory, the result is far murkier and less enlightening.
What immediately hooks us into this story are stellar performances by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, as Dick and Lynne Cheney. Bale, known for his chameleon-like transformations, looks and sounds the part, though McKay never gives him much to do beyond grumble and sneer. Adams gets the far juicier role here of a quasi-Lady Macbeth who pushes her husband up the political ladder while putting her own ambitions on the back burner. She is the heart of the film, mainly because, as McKay repeatedly reminds us, Dick’s heart, if he indeed has one at all, is both literally and figuratively faulty.
As Cheney slithers his way up the Washington ranks, from Donald Rumsfeld’s lackey in the late 60s, to his election as Congressman in Wyoming, to his many White House appointments under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and both Bushes, we never see him grow as a character. From the very beginning, McKay presents Cheney as a self-serving, one-dimensional greed-head. Every so often, Cheney stares longingly at a stuffed marlin or trout hanging on a trophy wall, intimating that he’d rather just be fishing. It isn’t until his daughter Mary comes out as a lesbian, that Cheney is given an opportunity to feel human emotion, but by this point, McKay’s snarky, jokey narrative has spent so much time reinforcing Cheney’s evil, that pathos feels like a punchline.
There is, of course, the figurative “fishing expedition”, the cherry-picking of intel following September 11 which Cheney conducts as a means to justify the now-endless war in Iraq, a quagmire that has netted him billions through his many shameless side hustles. That he left a myriad of ruined careers (Valerie Plame) and reputations (Colin Powell) in his wake is treated as a mere footnote, and a well-tread one at that. Nothing new is learned, and beyond Bale’s eerily accurate portrayal, Vice is a showcase for McKay’s narrative stunts – running fake closing credits, Lynne and Dick’s Shakespearean pillow talk, a narrator with a unique relationship to Cheney, a post-credit focus group commenting directly on the film itself – which treat the subject matter as an opportunity to show us how clever the filmmaker is, rather than explore the complexities of a man and a system beyond anything more than SNL-level satire.
Once, when I was fishing with my grandfather, I gleefully hooked what I thought was a great catch. Upon reeling it in, my grandfather said, “that’s a garbage fish”. He explained that despite its impressive size, all it did was suck up bottom-feeders and algae. It wasn’t desirable for nutrition, and it moved slowly making it easy for a ten-year-old to catch. I’m certainly not saying Vice is garbage. It is funny, well-executed visually, and the performances are fun to watch. At first glance it seemed formidable – a scathing indictment of American politics starring some of the best actors in the game, helmed by an Oscar-winning screenwriter – but when it reeled itself in, it revealed itself to be just a facile fish tale.