VICE And Adam McKay’s Shakespearean Tendencies

How VICE and THE BIG SHORT owe their approach to the Bard.

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Mild spoilers for Vice to follow:

At two different points, Adam McKay’s Vice brings up William Shakespeare. The first time, it’s a joke, a scene where McKay has Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney and Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney speak to each other in verse about Dick’s thoughts on his first meeting with George W. Bush. There are discussions about the Cheneys’ ultimate designs, and some icky sexual suggestions. McKay’s script even attempts iambic pentameter during the exchange.

The second time Shakespeare’s invoked, it’s in plain speech, and it’s not a joke at all. In the last scene of the film, Cheney sits down for an interview. At first, he’s facing a reporter’s camera. Then, suddenly, he’s addressing us directly. Bale’s Cheney states his character’s entire philosophy in a chilling monologue that could be paraphrased from Richard III. “I can feel your incriminations and your judgment,” he growls at us, “and I am fine with that.”

In both instances, the Bard references are very much intentional. In fact, Vice, and McKay’s previous film, 2015’s financial crisis explainer The Big Short, use the same tricks Shakespeare used in his historical plays, like Richard II, Richard III, Henry V and others, to make complex sociopolitical issues understandable to a broad audience. McKay, like Shakespeare, employs fourth wall breaking and dramatic license, among other tools, to introduce social commentary, and to get his audience to pay attention and retain information. Simply put, McKay’s two most recent films, and especially Vice, are modern examples of history plays, and that’s the best context in which to watch them.

Shakespeare’s ten history plays address events that happened a good 200 years or so before they were dramatized. However, these plays often spoke more directly to the time they were being written in than the period they depicted. Henry V exploited England’s growing sense of patriotism. Richard II, written at a time when the future of the crown was uncertain, contains an entire act detailing the process of deposing a sitting monarch. Shakespeare also often took liberty with events or characters to better make them fit his message - he was more interested in trenchant social commentary than historical accuracy.

In The Big Short, McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph are open about the liberties the film takes with Michael Lewis’ reporting. Often, characters address the audience directly when there’s a deviation from the truth. Think of Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett telling us he’d never actually hang out with his loser colleagues, or Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) breaking to tell us he and his business partner didn’t actually find Vennett’s revolutionary prospectus in a bank lobby. These moments not only make the story more cinematic, but help us trust the authority of what we’re hearing. There may be some embellishments, but when the truth comes, we’ll know.

Vice’s relationship to the truth is more complicated. The opening text is a disclaimer for the entire movie, claiming “we did our fucking best.” Putting together an accurate account of Cheney’s career was a challenge, because his secretive nature made it hard to get details. That disclaimer basically gives McKay free reign, and he uses it to play not only with structure, but with character.

For example, there’s the bro-y, blowhard characterization of Donald Rumsfeld, one element that’s come under fire for its inaccuracy. Many sources, including Errol Morris’ documentary The Unknown Known, show us what Rumsfeld is really like, and he differs significantly from Steve Carell’s goofy, trigger-happy nihilist. But, if we view Vice’s take on Rumsfeld in the context of a history play, the difference makes more sense. Vice wants us to see the destructiveness of the system people in power have put in place for the rest of us. McKay writes Rumsfeld this way not so we can get what he was really like, but to make us mad about the attitudes that defined his political era, and still define our current one.

And then, there’s Cheney himself. Among criticisms of Vice are that the film is too sympathetic toward Cheney or, conversely, turns him into a cartoon villain. It’s true that the character is hard to get a consistent read on, but that’s part of the point. McKay’s version of Cheney is a warped combination of Prince Hal - the unformed degenerate who resolves to take responsibility - and Richard III, the conniver who worms his way to power. We see that Cheney has the capacity to care for others, especially his family. But when it comes down to it, the intoxicating nature of power and money, and the way people who influenced him early on (like Rumsfeld) wielded both, are what define his actions.

Vice, like The Big Short before it, is an outlet for Adam McKay’s anger at our current cultural climate, and the complacency that’s led us here. He expresses that anger by showing us what we’ve let happen, through backroom machinations we either never knew about, or decided were too confusing to pay attention to. The form of the Shakespearean history play, with its mass appeal and juicy stories of power grabs, provides a perfect vehicle to get the message across. Vice’s final soliloquy lays it all out there: Cheney knows he angered people and destroyed lives, but he doesn’t care. McKay’s message is that Cheney never pretended to act for the benefit of the American people. He acted for his, and we let him.