Vice review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
I remember being so surprised and rattled by Adam McCay’s The Big Short. It wasn’t merely because McCay, most known for more raunchy comedy pictures, was able to push out a thoughtful historical bio-pic but also for how the film presents itself. The Big Short took aim at the big banking crash of 2007-2008 that provided a clever and angering picture of how corrupt and damaging banks were in trying to get as many loans out as possible. There are funny bits where Margot Robbie in a bathtub explains certain loans and angering ones where Steve Carrel gives a forlorn struggle to find the holes in the sinking ship, too late to do anything.
Now McCay turns his new style of film-making to the 2000's with the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney. There’s a lot of ground to cover here and it all feels like fairly safe territory considering most of Cheney’s career focuses around business. And then there’s the whole ordeal with George Bush Jr. and his Presidency of flawed and messy tactics. And Donald Rumsfeld. And how the presidency handled 9/11. And war. And oil.
This isn’t the first time this weird legacy had attempted to be covered, as with the 2008 film W, comically documenting George Bush at the end of his presidency. It was a somewhat sloppy production but now with a decade to digest, perhaps McCay can sift through the muck of it all to make better sense of the events. He certainly has the cast for it. Christian Bale melts into the role of Cheney, donning thinning hair and a bigger belly to make that aged and winded figure come to a certain sort of life. Sam Rockwell perfectly plays Bush as a man who seems somewhat lost in the weeds as he tries to do what he believes is best, especially in a post-9/11 world. He relies on Cheney to spin the wheels of the campaign and the presidency, to such a disturbing degree that it appears Cheney provided more influence and damage than Bush could have ever hoped to achieve.
But so what? Is any of this new or revealing of the Bush/Cheney legacy that hasn’t already been divulged in countless documentaries, books, and revealing documents? It’s a shocking turn from the more vocal and alive appeal of The Big Short, where the usual style, vigor, and rage seem to have subsided. Rather than dig a little deeper to find the why and the emotional ravaging that Cheney brought to the political landscape, the film goes into a droning mode that seems more attuned to finding stuff for this ensemble cast to do than say anything all that interesting about the very sharp and scathing series of political events over the course of a decade.
Vice feels like such a waste for how much talent is present. Bale has set the bar extremely high as one of the best portrayals of Cheney I’d ever seen, albeit that it’s a low bar with so lukewarm satires over the years that don’t even come close. So why not make the film more about him? Why not drill down into this savage and savvy business man who plowed his way into politics and try to find something more? It’s even more unfortunate that McCay’s bag of tricks in taking on how problems of the past have shaped the world we live in today. To give you an idea of how embarrassing this dissection must’ve been, a deleted scene features Cheney’s strategies in a cafeteria being explained in the form of a musical number. That moment, if left in, would’ve given off a nasty aftertaste akin to The Greatest Showman, where the wool is pulled over your eyes, making you believe you have seen something politically astute when it’s more of a woeful waxing.