Partisanship is the American religion, and as with any sufficiently Manichean system, hatred of the enemy god is its own potent form of belief. In 2019, much of this worship is conducted on social media platforms, where the flattening of the world’s complex dimensions, and the fragmentation of our sense of individual identity, have proven lucrative and distracting business. To mediate this anthropo-technical slurry, a new class of politician has leveraged their intuitive understanding of this fast-twitch, viral landscape. Interactivity, with all its possibilities, has ushered in a politics predicated on performance both for and by the faithful, an emopolitics wherein identity, once fragmented, is recombined and reconstituted around the brand-persona of choice. Now, more than ever, this fervor has taken on a life of its own, and the consequences are already upon us.
Dick Cheney, however, would seem to stand apart from all of this. Within the paradigm of American politics shaped, for better or worse, by the telegenic and televisual likes of Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama, the legacy of the 46th vice president—the power he accrued, the mark he left on world events—simply does not jive. On the left wing, this incongruity has given way to a fascination in its own right, made all the more cultlike and intense for the outrage the man fails to evoke. A stooped, sexless functionary, with a gravel monotone and an aversion to the spotlight, Cheney inspires such dread precisely because he represents what progressives fear most about American democracy: that conspiracies are, in the end, unnecessary; that if you can make them seem boring enough, the most heinous of acts are permitted.
This is Adam McKay’s point of entry in Vice, a film that aspires to bring the power brokerage of America’s most diligent post-war technocrat into appropriate perspective with its horrors. Conservatives will find little refuge here. Vice takes for granted that its subject is guilty of monstrous crimes, all the more monstrous for the exceeding ingenuity, and the joy of purpose, with which they were carried out. McKay knows that among Cheney’s nominal supporters there are two contingents: those who don’t actually know what he did, and those who know but simply don’t care. His hunch is that the former far outnumbers the latter. And for the sheer grim expanse of Cheney’s résumé, he would appear to be right.
McKay also senses, more troublingly, that the memory of Cheney is fading from view; that a younger generation’s perception of the acts of the Bush administration is shrouded in a mist of incuriosity and irrelevance. For them, the 2016 election was Year Zero on an apocalyptic calendar of permanent crisis. CALL YOUR CONGRESSPERSON NOW, the platforms say. DONATE HERE. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Surely, in 2018, we have bigger fish to fry than the neoconservatives, the ones Trump purged so effortlessly in his swift Republican primary, whose failures now seem too obvious to mention. Surely, it is this moment, not Bush’s or Cheney’s, that is without precedent.
McKay suggests we look again; that where the historical machinery of power appears its calmest is, in fact, the eye of the storm. Vice argues that Cheney’s methodical and relatively frictionless ascent to the heights of stature and influence is best examined and understood through the prism of the disarray it portends. The film is, at once, a traditional Hollywood biopic, and an experimental film essay interrogating that more traditional story’s very structure. In this regard, Vice shares roots with The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s novel about the ecstatic tedium of the Internal Revenue Service. The two works differ vastly in execution, but both are grounded in an anxiety over the same central question: how do we—as individuals, as an audience, and as a nation—pay attention?
One answer to that question might be: we pay attention to a star. McKay’s choice to cast Christian Bale as his lead is a brazen and deeply weird opening gambit. It also has the whiff of brilliance. While the weight Bale gained1 for the role might seem like the apex of awards season gimmickry, the physical transformation serves a conceptual function that goes beyond the always-narrowing public connotations of "method acting." There was no shortage of naturalistic candidates to portray Cheney. But by recruiting Bale—an actor of such notably different body type and carriage, whose iconic roles (Batman, Bateman) hinge on metamorphosis and duplicity2—McKay is gesturing at the fundamental elusiveness of his subject, both in history and as we find him on screen. In Vice, the more recognizable Bale becomes as Cheney, the more clearly we think we can see a man who made a career of deception, a man hiding in plain sight—we think we can see him and, of course, we can. He’s the actor, Christian Bale. But our real quarry, McKay signals to us, will always lie elsewhere.
The mise en abyme at its center, this disappearing-into the man-disappeared, helps ground Vice’s efforts to critique its own grand narrative from within. On this matter, we might direct our attention to the narrator, Kurt—at first only voiced, and then embodied, by Jesse Plemons—whose presence remains a mystery for much of the film. In the meantime, we learn a bit about him: a family man from the Pittsburgh area, a factory worker and, later on, a member of ground forces in Afghanistan, Kurt traces a Zelig-like journey in the shadow of Cheney’s deeds, all the while explaining the legal and political developments that made his rise to power possible.
Kurt’s interruptions can be frustrating, even obnoxious at times. As the film’s conscience, his register is somewhere between a Terrence Malick internal monologue and the verbatim copy in an insurance commercial. His connection to the Cheney story, when it is finally revealed, feels cheap and unnecessary. We might wonder why a script as rife with expository devices as Vice—screen text, illustrative montages, and cameo asides—particularly one that includes so much exposition within the drama of the story itself, might need a narrator at all.
Pondering this question, we come upon McKay’s populism. The word has become unmoored in contemporary discourse, but in pure aesthetic terms, it means that Vice accepts the challenge of a complex story, with the caveat that it will make its lessons as clear to as many people as possible. Consider that Kurt, demographically speaking, fits the profile of the much-vilified 2016 Obama-Trump flip voter. If this means compressing voluminous concepts of constitutionality and legal philosophy, and repeating them over and over, from a new character or from within a new device, so be it. In Vice, subtlety—whatever McKay's more aesthetically sensitive viewers may feel about it—is the first to be put to the sword.
Handling the smooth explanation of so much clerical detail is a tall order, and McKay would seem to be the director for the job. After all, his last film, The Big Short (2015), managed a similarly hyperactive take on real-life systemic greed and incompetence, to no small acclaim. But while McKay, as sole screenwriter, has clearly done his research, his script lacks the journalistic detail and storytelling vision available in a book by Michael Lewis or, say, Seymour Hersh.3
Instead, McKay paints his characters with a broad, allegorical brush. An epiphany sets the story into motion: in Wyoming, 1963, Dick, a man whose promise has been thwarted by drunkenness and sloth, is snapped into shape by an ultimatum from his commanding bride-to-be, Lynne (Amy Adams). He works his way to Washington D.C. as a congressional intern, where he bows and scrapes into the tutelage of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrel), who schools him in the art of palace intrigue. The two somersault from Nixon to Ford administrations, accumulating allies and gathering legal precedents to help enhance the power of the presidency along the way. Among these are Roger Ailes, Antonin Scalia, and—the hallmark of presidential overreach—the theory of the unitary executive.
Dick is essentially the product of these two influences: the willful, feminine Lynne, and the neurotic, masculine Rummy. His success, we see, hinges on his ability to sublimate the ambitions of one into the skills of the other, and vice versa. This story of masculinity poisoned by over-determination, challenged by and finally restored in combination with ascendant femininity should be familiar to fans of Anchorman or Talladega Nights, McKay’s early films written alongside his comedy partner (and co-producer) Will Ferrell. Vice applies this formula in reverse. Dick internalizes and weaponizes the dreams smothered by his wife’s conservative Wyoming upbringing, in pursuit of the power Rumsfeld's own personality seems to prevent him from ever attaining.
As dramatic forces, Adams and Carrel prove themselves every bit the equals of Bale. Adams, in particular, is a vision of American monomania. More than anyone in the film, she is driven by an aesthetic vision of her own: a Nietzschean disdain, as much for the primitive misogyny of her family, as for the mediocrity of flagging liberal culture, her bravado is unnervingly seductive and revolting by turns. Carrel’s depth is in his nuance, managing to draw Regional Manager Michael Scott4 to the edge of Dr. Strangelove without losing the twinkle in his eye. By contrast, much of Bale’s work is negative space: slouching, pausing, altering the gravity of the room with an adjustment of his seat. Carrel and Adams' expressionism provide essential tonal foundation from scene to scene, and as maternal and paternal forces, they help build a symbolic bridge to the pivotal relationship still to come.
This androgynous mutability, we see, has prepared Dick well for handling George W. Bush. Played to a faithful caricature by Sam Rockwell, Bush is an avatar of charisma bereft of any conception of power, more interested in baseball than hardball. In their first major meeting, we see the mechanisms of Dick’s interpretive mind at work through stuttering flash-cuts (and, more cumbersomely, Bale’s sole internal monologue). The most telling clue is a fleeting glance at a photograph of Barbara Bush tending to her granddaughter: for a man defined by an adversarial relationship to his father, Cheney will provide maternal guidance and encouragement—the model for which, of course, is none other than the exacting and imperious Lynne. It’s a complex scene, and its sophistication is almost certainly lost on viewers on anything less than their second turn through Vice’s considerable runtime. All the more reason, then, that McKay decided to intercut it with perhaps the most overt and heavy-handed of symbolic interventions: Cheney casting his expert fly in a Wyoming creek—a fisher of men.5
At this moment, perhaps more than any other, the nature of Vice’s project becomes clear. It’s easy to write off such redundant structures as a concession to a popular audience, to chalk it up to multiple drafts of its sprawling screenplay, to disparities between directorial and studio cuts, and so on. But the more one watches, the more intentional it seems, and the more persuasively Vice, a film charged with investigating the nature of American attention, appears conceived to reward that attention at multiple levels. And the more even truly irritating interventions—like a false, alternate "ending" in the middle of the film, or a scene of cringe-worthy mock-Shakespearean dialogue—take on a valence that reaches beyond populist silliness into almost Brechtian interpellation. PAY ATTENTION, it says with each jolt. LOOK AGAIN, CLOSER THIS TIME. WAKE UP.
The soft coup that Dick and Lynne execute on the naïf Bush the Younger, and the blitzkrieg of military corporatism that subsequently sweeps into Washington D.C., has the feel-good pep of a heist film. The events of September 11th, 2001, however, inaugurate a shift towards general ghoulishness and Mephistophelean brooding. The disaster itself is only registered from afar, within secure conference rooms and undisclosed locations. Dick solidifies his grip on power even as the people over whom that power is wielded become more distant and abstracted: a crowd at a baseball game, percentages in a focus group. On this matter, Vice offers no resistance to its subject’s perspective. The 2004 campaign isn’t even mentioned. Democracy itself has become an afterthought.
A former head writer at Saturday Night Live, McKay is no stranger to postmodern aesthetics, but he’s also a moralist. Like many of his generation, he sees the Iraq War—and the bill of goods sold from podiums and newspapers and television studios6 to wage it—as the origin of our contemporary post-truth crisis. Once and for all, the fabrication of intelligence about "weapons of mass destruction" undermined the public’s trust in the government and the press in one traumatic, irreparable blow. The story is familiar by now, though in Vice its edges are sharpened to a rhetorical point. Cheney, through the Office of Special Plans, is the author of those lies. Cheney, through the choreography of Colin Powell’s speech to the UN, is the engineer of the machine that transformed those lies into reality. And while it happened, McKay insists, our attention was elsewhere; now, its wreckage is all around us.
Any truthful assessment of Cheney, then, will incorporate this wreckage into its very fabric. The aesthetic blowback that saturates Vice, more than just a tactic for engagement, is the fiber of its critique. Dick styles himself as an enlightened bureaucrat, a man who can deduce the patterns of history in the chaotic weave of events. More than once do we see him at the center of a circle of analysts and advisors, making snap decisions based on reams of hard-spun "intelligence." But spliced throughout the film, interludes of bloody combat, torture, and general misery (both found and staged) show those decisions, and their ramifications, poised to overtake Dick and his cohort. By now, the delusion of systemic expertise has, itself, deteriorated into pure self-deception. This Ludovico-esque montage, far-flung and often abstract, evokes at once the terror of such a system’s vastness, and the hubris of those who would claim to manage it. It is among the most jarring strategies in Vice, and it bears the unmistakable signature of Adam Curtis.
Over the past few years, the British documentarian’s austere, psychedelic ruminations on politics and power have seeped into the Internet's collective unconscious, helping give shape to a politics of rejection of enlightened managerialism on the young Left. Like Guy Debord, Curtis uses the residue of mass spectacle to investigate the breakdowns of a society in that spectacle’s thrall—specifically, by trawling through the massive film and television archives of his employer, the BBC. It’s safe to say that Vice would not be possible without the widescreen historical thinking of The Power of Nightmares (2004) or The Century of the Self (2002).7 Its reveries share the sunken-world quality of Curtis’ films, and Kurt’s narration evokes Curtis’ own dry, plain-spokenness—an incantation for anti-hypnosis.
It’s this same ideological short-circuitry that McKay attempts to bring, kicking and screaming, into the form of a popular Hollywood film. Unlike The Big Short, which seemed to glide on Michael Lewis’ source material and the righteousness of hindsight, Vice only gets more hectic and agitating as new information accumulates. In search of knowledge, we get only intelligence. Time and again, that intelligence proves to be faulty.
Consider it a sign of the times. The Big Short was, in its own way, a salvation myth for neoliberalism. The movie’s heroes (all the more heroic the more they eschewed their heroism) were capitalists, but they were humble, vigilant capitalists—individuals, outsiders, scrappy upstarts like the virtuous new president just around the bend. Their story represented the purgation of capitalism’s bad faith, a break with a past already underway: capitalist restoration. This time, naturally, we’d get it right.
In Vice, the catastrophe of our present administration practically curls the celluloid at its edges like a flame. There are no heroes, only accidents of fortune, and those—like Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, and Hillary Clinton—to exploit them. The few allusions to Trump are positioned for minimal interference and maximum impact. But mostly he defers any notion of continuity between the Cheney system and the rise of Trump to the sheer breakdown that unfolds in the film’s final third. Dick, drunk on secret power, finds that he has no real skill for its administration, or stomach for its consequences. Iraq is engulfed in the insurgency; ISIS is born; Halliburton, Whittington, Plame. We know all these songs by heart. But he never faces the music, at least not directly.
And here, in the film’s final minutes, the allegorical register returns. Rockwell’s Bush may be Dick’s symbolic son—an Isaac for Abraham to sacrifice on the altar of power—but his favorite lamb is the black sheep, Mary, played by Alison Pill. When she confesses to her parents that she is a lesbian, Dick warms the camera with his acceptance and unconditional love. Mary’s queerness is another kind of accident of fortune: Dick’s refusal to disown her, or to dissemble about her, sinks his presidential ambitions once and for all, and in the end clears a path to power by other means. But the Cheneys’ older daughter Liz has inherited her parents’ ambitions, and the conservative coalition with whom Dick made his devil’s pact at last comes for their tribute. Perhaps transformed by a recent heart transplant8, Dick gives his tacit permission for Liz to campaign, in her own 2014 Wyoming senate bid, against gay marriage. The decision shatters his family—the last, and possibly the only thing in Dick’s life he ever truly protected. It’s the essence of human drama, held in reserve over the course of two-plus hours of elastic and ironized infotainment, and the blow it lands is one of pure heartbreak. The sins of the father. Reptiles, at least, have the decency to eat their young.
Our fascination for Cheney may ebb and flow, but throughout the film, Vice never equivocates on the fact that he is the enemy. It’s telling that there are no heroes in the story of Washington power games from 2000 to 2008: it should come as no surprise that McKay is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, part of a growing movement that sees the economic and foreign policies of mainstream Democrats and Republicans, not as opposed to one another, so much as variations on a theme.9 As a bellwether, Vice stands alongside Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You—another imaginative and flawed film that aims to instruct popular audiences about the nature of power under capitalism, not just alongside, but through entertainment. If in the end, it's only the sum of its parts and not more, Vice remains an energizing experiment, one that contorts itself according to audience, influence, subject, style; a bewildering reflection on a moment of bewilderment—a Permanent Now extending from 9/11 to today, a state of emergency that some among our leadership seem adamant to bring to the swiftest and bloodiest possible end. Nevertheless, a reckless pursuit of such a vision can, at times, be too difficult to distinguish from a lack of control, and a theory-driven provocation of the audience can often feel, in practice, like disregard. A glorious neoprogressive cinema remains, alas, still in the wings.
So what, then, does Vice tell us that we don’t already know—that we don’t already believe? Instead of an answer, consider an image: the faded, boyish face of George W. Bush weeping over the coffin of his father. A headline in The New York Times, December 4, 2018: “The Old Bush Gang Gathers for a Final Send-Off.”10 Among journalists and pundits, nostalgia for the old dynasty—enabled, make no mistake, by the same emopolitical content mill that beatifies the Clintons, and the Obamas, and one day too, the Trumps—demonstrates how difficult these demons can be to exorcise. Consider those for whom this "gang" has never wept. Consider that all of them, to a man, now walk free. Know this, McKay says. Know it, but never surrender your disbelief. To give in to belief would be to render these travesties, like WMDs, official truths. At its worst, Vice is a blown-out annoyance; at its best, it is a talisman to ward off evil. Get thee behind me, Cheney.