‘Vice’ is the worst movie of the year. Here’s why.
There have been movies like Vice before. I don’t mean bad films, although Vice is a very bad one. I mean movies that are about the worst of the worst in our history textbooks, movies that put our cultural villains center stage as they plunge our society into ruin. Vice falls under this category.
By the film’s own uninhibited self-aggrandizement you might get the impression Vice is the first of its kind, but there are others that have come before it. Downfall examined the demise of Hitler and the Nazi regime; Goodfellas glorified the callous violence of mobster Henry Hill; I, Tonya took a sympathetic look at figure skater Tonya Harding; The Wolf of Wall Street and The Social Network studied the architects of some of our more recent social ills.
When these sorts of movies work, they pose a similar question: what does the success of this terrible person say about me? These biographies of villainy are often criticized for empathizing too much with their subjects, but that’s not really the point. The best of these films are not actually about their subjects – they’re a Trojan Horse, a useful means of framing a story that, on the inside, is really about all of us.
Writer-director Adam McKay, apparently, has not seen any of these films, because Vice goes in the opposite direction: the entire movie is about former vice president Dick Cheney, and Dick Cheney alone. Vice takes on an expansive timeline, covering everything from Cheney’s drunken aimlessness in 1960s Wyoming all the way through his health troubles post-White House. The film is massively overstuffed, but it’s still a rich-half century in American history, a time period ripe for social commentary from a skilled director like McKay. But instead of connecting Cheney’s rise to any condemnation of American values or the hearts of men, McKay uses his film to drive home one simple message: everything in America is Dick Cheney’s fault.
This is barely an exaggeration. Vice is full of bizarre scenes in which Cheney is given credit for forces much greater than himself. Cheney crosses paths with Roger Ailes and is somehow given credit for fueling the rise of conservative media. Cheney takes a meeting with Antonin Scalia and is positioned as a leading proponent of the Unified Theory of the Executive, conservative legal apparatus be damned.
There were many votes of approval for the Iraq War, but Vice contends that it was Cheney’s connection to Halliburton alone that motivated the war. There’s even a ridiculous montage at the end of the film summarizing what Cheney has done to America that includes an image of a woman overdosing on opioids. There was nothing about that during the movie, but why not throw it in? Call it McKay’s Unified Theory of Historical Evil: long-term trends in American and global life mean nothing in the face of what one man did to change American forever.
When McKay does attempt to bridge Cheney’s actions with some greater evisceration of American life, he does so by condescending. A montage at the beginning of the film suggests we are too stupid or attention-deficit to care or pay attention to what is happening to our political system. McKay pauses the movie to explain concepts in painstaking detail, concepts which are not altogether very complex. A scene involving a focus group of voters propels stereotypes about dumb southerners and paints us all as mindless sheeple: all it takes is for the Republicans to tweak their messaging and we’re on board with the destruction of our democratic institutions. Vice is a maddening movie-going experience for this reason – the film gives its audience the finger, and all it inspired in me was the desire to give it right back.
Why, though, didn’t this same snide condescension bother me in McKay’s previous feature and my favorite film of 2015, The Big Short? In that takedown of the American financial system McKay pans the American people for not paying attention, mocks their financial decision-making, and pauses the movie to explain financial concepts. Each of these tactics is on full display in Vice; what marks the difference between a film I loved and a film I loathed?
The difference lies in the scope of McKay’s ire. Vice condescends to everyday Americans: Dick Cheney ruined us, and you were too stupid and lazy to do anything about it. The Big Short, meanwhile, condescends to all. Sure, regular citizens were complicit in the downfall of the financial system. But it only got to that point because the people at the top were a bunch of incompetent idiots, too. “We live in an era of fraud in America,” Mark Baum (Steve Carell) laments in The Big Short. Vice is a judgment of one man; The Big Short is a judgment of the whole damn system.
The Big Short also never lost sight of who was actually affected by the financial crisis. It’s a heist movie without any triumphant payoff. When Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) realize that shorting the housing market will make them millionaires, they celebrate. Their financial backer, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), chides them for it.
“If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions,” he tells them. “You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number – every one percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die.”
But Vice never considers the people that Cheney harmed; in fact, it barely considers anyone aside from Cheney himself. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and Cheney’s wife Lynne (Amy Adams) have substantial supporting roles, but Vice is almost entirely the Christian Bale show. (Bale does a dull, static impression; if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the entire performance.) This makes it all the more perplexing that McKay fails to turn Cheney into a vessel for any larger lessons about the American political system.
Maybe it’s simply that he didn’t have the knowledge to do so. McKay reportedly conducted extensive research on Cheney, but Vice comes off more cartoonishly uninformed than the everyday Americans it condescends to actually are. It’s a self-serious House of Cards episode: everyone is either transparently ambitious, evil, stupid, or some combination of the three. If you want to watch a story about an American vice president that accurately reflects the pervasiveness of stupidity in our political system, watch Veep, not Vice.
I wish McKay had found the ability to tell a more reliable historical tale. I don’t mean in terms of historical accuracy, per se; plenty of movies toy with the details to find a greater capital-T Truth. No matter the accuracy with which McKay captured the events in Cheney’s life, I just didn’t buy the idea that one man destroyed America.
This One Great Villain narrative doesn’t just ring hollow, though – it’s also dangerous, or as dangerous as a financially underperforming movie like Vice can be. The irony of McKay’s approach is that it strives to be a sharp takedown of an American giant, but actually ends up letting us all off the hook. If all our problems were caused by Dick Cheney, then none of them are inherent in our political system. Greed, unregulated capitalism, political corruption – these are the evils caused by a bad egg, not failures woven into the fabric of American life. Vice, then, is not an ethically problematic film because it lends its villainous protagonist undue power, but because it overstates the power he held at all.
Near the end of Vice McKay devotes way too much time to Cheney’s health problems, which are foreshadowed throughout the film. Without a heart donor, it appeared as if Cheney’s death was imminent, but a last-minute savior gave him another decade of life. It’s telling that Vice laments this extension, as if the very fact that Cheney remains alive is sustaining the destruction of America. But Cheney will die, as will the other seemingly permanent leaders who stain our democracy, and Vice has no clue how to think about what comes after that.
At the conclusion of the heart surgery scene, the camera fixates on the original heart that was removed from Cheney’s chest. It’s an obvious damnation of Cheney which suggests that the root of his evil was downright physical. But by reducing the ills of American society to one man’s heart, Vice ends up saying nothing at all.