Sunday Reads: Why VICE Is Political Satire Worth Watching

Writer/Director Adam McKay’s latest contains vices of its own, but still warrants its nominations.

Sporting a sleek tux and degrading, yet appreciative, sense of humor, Christian Bale accepted the 2019 Golden Globe Award for best actor in a comedy or musical. He thanked not just his wife and writer/director Adam McKay, but showed gratitude to Satan himself for providing inspiration for his role as Dick Cheney in Vice. While Bale clearly made his opinion on the man known, there has been polarizing reception regarding his speech as well as the film. Many praised McKay’s proclaimed character portrait of the 46th Vice President of the United States, earning it several award nominations; but there continues to be a wave of negative response primarily around the film’s structure, tone, and intended audience. However, there are innovative technical elements McKay employs that address these notions, further justifying its mention in the awards circuit. All of which demonstrates that McKay put his heart into portraying the heartless - even if it comes off cold as ice.

Vice opens with a passage indicating “this is a true story, or at least as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history” and “we did our fucking best”. It’s established that the team conducted extensive research while exploring Cheney’s inebriated college days getting kicked out of Yale, an internship at the White House during Nixon’s presidency, advancement to Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and ultimately his term as Vice President. But this is not an authorized biographical film, nor is it entirely factual and traditionally structured. Vice has been criticized for its 2 hour and 12 minute runtime and non-linear layout containing news segments, monologues that break the fourth wall, and blunt metaphors to convey not only Cheney’s ruthless nature but also the general public’s passiveness and confusion during the events that eclipsed his rise to power. With eccentric tactics, McKay sets out to revisit events through the lens of a stoic and calculating man whose decisions altered the course of history.

Throughout the film, fly fishing is a recurrent theme, alluding to one of the biographies McKay drew upon - Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency as he includes shots of Cheney strategically casting a fishing rod cut with a determining conversation with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) trying to lure him in as his running mate. The sport is an apt metaphor regarding Cheney’s approach to politics by slowly and manipulatively reeling in power with precise patience. Other inventive manners around which McKay structures the film involve blunt allegory to depict Cheney’s cutthroat disposition and the malleability of the law. There is a cleverly clandestine scene in which Cheney and his cronies post 9/11 are dining at a fancy restaurant listening to the the maître d’hôtel recite the so-called “policy menu” stretching constitutional and international law complete with dish items such as the enemy combatant, an enticing rendition where suspects are abducted on foreign soil and taken to countries that still torture, Guantanamo Bay, War Powers Act interpretation, and the Unitary Executive Theory supporting the notion that anything the president does must be legal. As the high-powered men prepare to prey upon the masses, Cheney responds “we’ll have them all”.

Previously, Cheney’s daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as a lesbian, leading him to avoid political confrontation on gay marriage rights. Many viewers have complained about moments of humanization through his familial love, but even they cannot suppress his innate quest for authority. Cheney’s heart transplant surgery is a plot point used to convey his cold-blooded nature and hypocrisy. When his eldest daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe) campaigns for one of Wyoming’s Senate seats, he encourages her to publicly reiterate her belief that marriage belongs between a man and a woman. Her news segment cuts back and forth to Liz’s parents watching her speech, the open-heart surgery, and Mary experiencing an emotional breakdown. These compiled scenes synchronize to the operation with the camera focusing on Cheney’s vacant chest cavity while also cutting back and forth between 9/11, Fox News, torture footage, and multiple other shots of Americans suffering. It is a literal representation of his heartlessness and the expansive reach of his ruination all brilliantly edited by Hank Corwin. While Cheney is thankful for his life-saving surgery, he has no desire to learn anything about his donor (who is unknown despite McKay’s impactful storyline on the individual) and even calls the organ his ”new heart” instead of someone else’s. McKay’s montage usage unconventionally explores how individuals may have good intentions, yet can still go down negative paths or correct paths depending on your point of view.

With all of these experimental compositions in the film, the protean tone fluctuates between dark comedy and drama. It’s a delicate dance that McKay is able to execute mostly due to the phenomenal performances by Bale and Amy Adams as Lynne. Their embodiment of the Cheneys is further heightened by an incredible makeup and prosthetic team. The dramatic elements are primarily cemented within the nuclear Cheney family with Lynne exuding confidence and ambitious support for her husband through every dire moment, repeatedly placing her hand on his shoulder as a source of strength but also a formidable reminder to uphold their status. Lynne’s dialogue is particularly interesting and propulsive with foreshadowing hidden like a snake within her brazen ascendancy. McKay actually inserts quotes from their biographies and past interviews into the script. Early in their marriage, Lynne gives Dick an ultimatum and tells him, “I can’t go to a big Ivy League school. And I can’t run a company or be a mayor. That’s just the way the world is for a girl. I need you.” Speaking to a young Liz, Lynne tells her to always remember “if you have power, people will always try to take it from you”. The Cheney’s cyclical influence upon one another is anchored in the film with a symbiotic relationship emphasizing elements of power, intimidation, and control which is solidified as Lynne observes at a formal White House gathering how everyone in the room either fears them or wants to be them. Also, when Mary initially comes out, Dick is seemingly more accepting while Lynne states how hard things will be for her, as if letting her know even those closest to you may stray. There’s a grave seriousness to all of those moments (not to mention potential revulsion) which can conjure an abrupt tonal shift to anything from Shakespearean dialogue to a ‘90s Budweiser commercial. Some complain that McKay uses comedy inappropriately by making light of traumatic historical moments while others are dissatisfied with the slightest attempt to humanize Cheney. All of which goes to show that what works for some viewers may not work for others - and that’s perfectly ok. Like politics, artistic interpretation is usually divisive. McKay’s resume is cemented in comedy having worked as head writer on Saturday Night Live and directed films like Anchorman and Step Brothers. Even his previous politically-driven film, The Big Short, possesses a similar framework favoring comedy to relay the 2008 financial crisis. It would be surprising if he had addressed Vice in a solemn, traditionally linear manner while walking a tightrope as to not offend anyone.

Speaking with the New York Times, McKay disclosed that his structural approach revolves around “discovering new styles and forms, because this era we’re in demands it. The world has gotten so cartoonishly exaggerated and over the top.” This style doesn’t sit well with some, but it does have the ability to captivate younger audiences, engaging them with political figures and historical events that perhaps were before their time. Additionally, the quick edit sequences speak to our culture’s short attention span. Our society as a whole has an obsession with pop culture and unless we are outraged, politics has a tendency to sit on the backburner. The post-credits sequence boldly drives a nail into the coffin on how Cheney’s actions influenced our country despite bypassing discussion about the Obama administration. Sure, it could be interpreted as condescending and biased to some, and a tense disposition typically prevails when discussing politics with opposing viewpoints. However, Vice sparks conversation about politics, history, and the ease in which government can be manipulated in favor of a select few. It also reminds us that despite the film upsetting many viewers, Cheney is not remorseful and we let him get away with his dirty deeds. No matter what your political affiliation may be, one of Vice’s blatant intentions is to wake us up, shake us up, and collectively reflect in order to do better moving forward because at the end of the day, we all have a heart, but it’s up to us how we use it - if at all.