What a Dick! – Vice

My final film of calendar year 2018, Vice, presents a unique opportunity. Written and directed by Adam McKay, it provides another chance for McKay’s rapier wit in explaining how the elite grab hold of the seats of power and fuck over the rest of us. He did it two years ago with The Big Short, and now he can do it again, and this time with a much more visible target in the form of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Further, it allows for the chance to accomplish something that other political hit-job films couldn’t, which is to air its grievances while the party in question is still alive to dispute them. Do I think the Cheney family (or the Bushes for that matter) will publicly challenge the film or try to sue for defamation? Of course not, because if they do, lawyers can go to discovery and air a whole lot more dirty laundry in the process. But at least the possibility is there, unlike with Chappaquiddick earlier this year, which presented the worst version of Ted Kennedy imaginable, more than a decade after his death so he and his associates have no way to defend themselves.

The film leads the Golden Globe nominations with six, which doesn’t sit right with me, because again, those nominations came out before the film was even screened for critics, much less the public, who had to wait until Christmas. It’s also hard to see how it’ll do during Awards Season, as this is a very polarizing film, dividing critics regardless of political affiliation. I happened to really enjoy the film, but I can see the HFPA and the Academy getting squeamish about another round of “liberal propaganda” backlash if it heaps too much hardware upon it. Still, the film has the six Globe nominations, nine Critics’ Choice nods, and two SAG nominations, as well as a place on two Academy shortlists, so let’s break them down!

Best Actor – Christian Bale is one of the most versatile actors in the world, and can embody basically any character that is handed to him, regardless of how he’s made up to look. He’s in top form as Cheney, adopting his mannerisms and speech patterns perfectly. He also maintains Cheney’s steel-eyed, calculating ambition, used much more often for ill than good, but admirable nonetheless.

Where the performance shines is not in Cheney’s naked political grabs, but in humanizing him. I’ll fully admit this film preaches to the choir for me, and the double entendre of the word “vice” as the title is pretty transparent. Dick Cheney is a monster who ought to be in prison for war crimes and profiteering as far as I’m concerned. The blood of hundreds of thousands are on his hands, and to this day he not only won’t apologize, but steadfastly balks at the facts that prove his guilt.

That said, the one bit of humanity he always had was in relation to his younger daughter, Mary, played in the film by Alison Pill. Mary is gay, which certainly didn’t sit well with the GOP of the 20th century. It still doesn’t sit well with a good chunk of the party. But Dick was unconditionally protective of Mary, and came out in support of gay marriage after he left office. There were still problems, and his final “vice” of the film is in heartbreaking relation to Mary, but it’s to the film’s credit, as well as Bale’s, that they were able to prominently feature the one area where Cheney had a heart.

Best Supporting Actress – Amy Adams has earned a ton of praise as Dick’s wife Lynne Cheney, and deservedly so. One of the hardest things about acting is seeing the character instead of the actor, and Adams clears that hurdle with ease. Equal parts Florence Nightingale and Lady Macbeth, Adams plays Lynne as both the angel and devil on Dick’s shoulders in all domestic matters, as well as some political ones. Could this be the year she finally gets her Oscar? She’s certainly deserved one for quite a while.

Best Supporting Actor – Sam Rockwell won this award earlier this year for his masterful performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and he may get a chance to defend with his stint as George W. Bush. He certainly gets the hokey, bumpkin mannerisms down, as well as the desperation to appease his father. In his limited role, he makes a great contrast to Bale, who exploits every opportunity to scoop up more power via W’s naivete.

However, I kind of get the feeling he might be passed over on this one. George H.W. Bush just passed away a few weeks ago, and for all his faults (of which there are MANY), 43 gave a sweet, loving eulogy for his father. The timing just sucks, and it would be seen as being in bad taste to nominate the actor who highlighted his buffoonery and incompetence compared to 41, especially when there are other good supporting performances from Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, for once not prancing around like a stereotype in drag.

Makeup & Hairstyling – It goes almost without saying that this would be on the Academy’s shortlist, as Christian Bale is transformed in much the same way Gary Oldman was last year for Darkest Hour. If anything, this film ups the ante, because it takes place over the course of 40 years, so Dick’s look has to go through several different iterations, and in not one of them do we really see Christian Bale.

Original Screenplay – Adam McKay is a tremendous writer, and his sharp and sardonic sense of humor are on full display here, from the opening slate where he tells the audience, “We did our fucking best” when it comes to historical accuracy, to the mid-credits scene where a Trump supporter accuses the film of being liberally biased before beating on a “libtard” who can comprehend basic facts while two vapid girls talk about how excited they are for the next Fast and Furious movie.

There are two places where the script can be criticized, but I think they’re features rather than bugs. One is the fact that McKay again breaks the fourth wall to explain high-end concepts that drive the scandals. He did it before in The Big Short when it came to the housing market and subprime mortgages. This time there’s a lot of focus on the Unitary Executive Theory of political power, because it fuels a lot of what happens with Dick, Bush, and Nixon, and has real-world applications today as it relates to the scandals of Donald Trump. Second is the character of Kurt, played by Jesse Plemons. He serves as a humorous narrator for much of the film’s proceedings, but apart from brief slice-of-life snippets, we have no idea how he relates to the story. He hints that he and Cheney are “related,” and the reveal is well-done, but he is a fictional character in this largely factual affair, so I can see where people might not like it.

Best Director – McKay’s cinematic eye only continues to improve as he takes on riskier material. I would have no problem with him getting the prize next year. However, it is unlikely. Like Jordan Peele this year and McKay himself the year before, when you’re nominated for both Screenplay and Director, you almost always end up with the writing award as a consolation prize because you’re never really given that much consideration. It’s a way of eliminating competition with Academy voters, and it’s lazy and stupid. But it happens all the same.

Original Score – I’ll admit I didn’t pay too close attention to this when I saw the film, so I can’t really judge it. It’s on the Academy shortlist, and if it gets nominated, I’ll certainly give it a listen. But really, I was way too focused on all the other stuff.

Best Picture – This is not my favorite film of the year. It’s heavy-handed and preachy at times, even bordering on pedantic. Some major moments, like Mary’s coming out, Cheney’s ordering of Valerie Plame’s identity being leaked, and even shooting his friend in the face, are just sort of tossed off or reduced to montage.

However, we won’t know what the final field is for Best Picture for another four weeks, so depending on what it’s alongside – say a terrible Disney sequel or an overrated third time remake – it might still get my nonexistent vote. There’s a lot to love about this film, particularly the makeup, acting, and incredibly strong story.

And if the Cheney’s don’t like it, McKay’s already ready for them. Come at him, bro!

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was the last film you saw in 2018? Do you hate me now because I’m a liberal and want to watch Fox News until the pain of facts goes away? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “What a Dick! – Vice

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