In writer/director Adam McKay’s 2015 film The Big Short, he razzle-dazzled a dry subject – 2007’s financial crisis – by tearing down the fourth wall and swerving between tones and techniques to deliver a withering yet wildly entertaining rebuke of corruption. McKay turns to many of the same anything-goes narrative devices in his latest film, the Life of Dick quasi-biopic Vice: flashbacks, flash-forwards, news photographs and TV footage inserts, a narrator who speaks directly to the camera. The novelty, by necessity, has worn off. So too has the puckishness.
Can you blame McKay? The former king of antic comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, he surely isn’t the only one of us whose sense of humor has soured since Trump took office. Everything is heavier here: the stakes, and the filmmaker’s hand. In detailing the destruction wrought by Dick Cheney’s shadow reign inside the 43rd president’s administration, and the American people’s willingness to turn a blind eye, McKay has made a protest film, plainly seething – a primal howl from a guy who used to just goose howls of laughter.
Christian Bale makes an asset of his tendency toward remoteness to play the cipher-like Cheney along his path from a Wyoming hooligan, scared into sober living by his best gal Lynne, to a yes man under Donald Rumsfeld’s tutelage in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and finally to puppet master himself as W.’s vice president. Swaddled in prosthetic jowls and hard-earned pounds, his suit jacket straining to contain him, Bale captures the character in a way that feels almost molecular; it’s an extraordinary feat of a person dissolving into the performance. Amy Adams gets the more emotive part as wife Lynne, a fierce and loving Lady Macbeth – a comparison McKay makes explicit by scoring one stretch of dialogue to iambic pentameter. But Cheney’s analog, at least in the film’s imagining, isn’t one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. It’s “honest Iago,” Othello’s backstabbing right-hand man, who would’ve given a big ol' thumbs-up to Dick’s “I’m but a mere servant to power” posturing.
That hunger for power, to be its master not its servant, determines every one of Cheney’s choices here. It’s not a terribly psychologically rich portrait, but nuance isn’t what the film is shooting for. What McKay wants to make certain is that the audience gets it, whatever it is – the unitary executive theory, the obfuscations and outright lies that marketed and sold the war in Iraq to America and its allies, the bleakly comic awfulness of it all – and he uses every trick in the book to get his points across. Some of them work brilliantly, like Jesse Plemons' omniscient narrator, maybe the film’s best invention, and Nicholas Britell’s brassy, doom-laden score (he also wrote the theme to HBO’s Succession, which McKay produced). Other tactics are more crude – a teacup motif, a fishing metaphor that stretches to the sound edit, as the gurgle of stream water underscores a scene set in the Oval Office, the vice president catching the ear of the president. It’s a bit much. Does McKay think his audience is too stupid to connect the dots?
Maybe. Because what becomes clear in this sometimes funny but mostly grim picture of political and societal rot is that McKay’s moral outrage extends to ... all of us. I didn’t catch it the first time I saw the film, not really, until the end-credits stinger and its sneering send-off line. (I’m pretty sure I heard the guy behind me in the theatre whisper “Fuck you, Adam McKay” in response.) But on second viewing, I paid more attention to his slideshow rattling-offs of Shitty Moments in Modern History – enhanced interrogation, Lynndie England, InfoWars, subprime mortgages, school shootings – and the slots saved for the pop culture banalities ("wassssssup") that have sucked up our bandwidths, the ways we have blithely ignored the calamities in our own backyards.
Do I blame him? Not really. Frankly, we should all be running around like the world is our house and the roof is on fucking fire. The time for a light touch is well behind us. Maybe the moment really does call for a bludgeon.
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