The Power Broker: Adam McKay’s Vice Tells a New American Tale

Abe Beame explores why Vice is one of the best films of the year.
By    December 27, 2018

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Abe Beame has never been quail hunting.

The gut punch moment of Adam McKay’s brilliant, formally daring new film Vice comes early. A young Dick Cheney — played without seams by IRL Dickensian Cockney grifter Christian Bale — asks his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, in the Nixon White House “What do we believe in?” Steve Carell’s Rumsfeld falls into hysterics at the lofty pretensions of the question and slams his office door in his mentee’s face. McKay has spent the last 14 years as a big ticket director interrogating American stupidity and hubris from a variety of angles with consistently potent, damning, always hilarious results. But with Vice he’s landed his most tangible, human blow by shifting his focus from the marionettes to a puppeteer. The film takes a break from excoriating Americans for their numb idiocy, complacency and unearned bullheaded self assurance. It takes square aim at the true motive behind these symptoms: The intelligent design authoring our stupidity, the lust for power and control.

McKay’s thesis finds an unlikely and perfect muse in the form of W. Bush Vice President Dick Cheney. The film introduces the machiavellian, silent but deadly American Emperor as a Kerouacian mid-20th century fuck up, drinking and fighting his life away in Wyoming destined for an ignominious life and anonymous death. Fate intervenes in the form of his explicitly Macbethian then girlfriend played by a no brainer Oscar worthy Amy Adams as the future Lynne Cheney, demanding he get his shit together and discover some ambition. As a Capitol Hill intern, the young hayseed Cheney, without the luxury or education to provide him a firm political ideology, falls hard for the swaggering naked ambition of Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld. And we’re off to the races.  

This, Mckay’s second “serious” film establishes a cinematic language that came off as more strange and experimental in his feature length re-enacted TED talk, The Big Short. That film spoon-fed us Collateralized Debt Obligation via Anthony Bourdain equating CDOs with perishable Cost Of Goods. This film is maturation, a step forward. Both films are curious and ask all the right questions. But in many ways Vice is even more experimental, it consecrates McKay’s distinctive style. It’s a previously unseen hodgepodge of guided YouTube tutorial, dramatic historical recreation, 4th wall breaking meta sketch comedy and muckraking documentary.

It’s full of tricks and narrative feints. More than before, there is a sure footed confidence in the telling, somewhat granted by a familiarity earned with his aforementioned financial crisis agitprop that gives a Godard sense of playful mastery. This is rule breaking of the highest order with the most noble of intentions. Those coming for the origin story, rise-and-fall metronomic beats won’t enjoy this but will miss a new type of pointed, half-entertainment half-journalistic Great Man style of storytelling.

In McKay’s films the arcane and obscure math, the fine print of history is dredged and translated. Unitary Executive Theory is a sacrament of the new flesh of Reaganist conservatism. Cheney recognizes the cumbersome burdens of democracy, the checks and balances of our rigorous system and makes it an early target to vault. This is Rick Perlstein boiled down to a tablespoon and injected into a carotid artery. The sturdy comfort of the political biopic is shattered with contempt and laid bare for it’s invisible agendas and biases, because this film doesn’t pretend to stab at any sort of objectivity. The biography is larded with judicial language and obscure history in a way we’ve never seen, selectively skimmed and delivered, nakedly speaking to a partisan agenda in a way that recognizes all biography and history is beholden to partisanship and agenda.

In his early marriage to Will Ferrell, McKay found his perfect cartoon avatar. Ferrell’s dead eyed, coked out every American had no moment of pause for self reflection, no opportunity to breathe and consider his circumstances or context. In Cheney, McKay finally has a realistically gross human subject. The somewhat incendiary subtext of the film is that Cheney was a decent and loving family man who was completely destroyed and perverted by ambition. To fold this into a Unified Theory of McKay, the idea seems to be that the only thing separating Ron Burgundy’s iron grip of a patriarchal 1970s San Diego News Desk and Gerald Ford’s White House Staff is awareness. The naked id crawls out of the same hole for both sad and absurd men.

McKay is not unprecedented. He has unlikely and less graceful forebears in Oliver Stone and Alan J. Pakula. He makes weird and potentially damaging decisions like having Jesse Plemons narrate the film as a 9-11 surviving Afghan War veteran who gets macked by a minivan in the burbs and supplies Cheney with a fresh heart and new lease on life. McKay employs the edit like German mustard gas. It’s freewheeling and associative, indulgent but shockingly visceral. Nat Geo clips are spliced with reeling in a VP bid, helming Shock and Awe is interstitched with Cheney driving drunk in Wyoming in ’63. It’s not the serene lazy river of narrative but the white water rapid of a Social Studies Chapter dictated by Noam Chomsky on fire. Through it all wonton Power is God and King, Means and Ends.

Towards the end of the film, with the sham in Iraq effectively exposed and laid bare, but the empty goals achieved, Cheney cuts Rumsfeld loose. Doctor Frankenstein is killed by his monster. The animating lightning bolt of power is close to the end of its tether. Soon after, Cheney’s open heart surgery is juxtaposed with his hetero daughter Liz’s refutation of same sex marriage, a stance she takes with Dick’s blessing to win his old Congressional seat and betray the confidences of his beloved lesbian daughter Mary (And let me just take an out of rhythm McKaysian aside to comment on how perhaps the most incredible and horrific obvious but oft forgotten factoid dropped by the film is that the state of Wyoming has such sparing population density that it only boasts ONE fucking congressional seat yet still warrants TWO fucking Senators!!!!! For perspective, New York has 27. This means Wyoming represents .23% of the House of Representatives and 2% of the Senate!!!!).

With this betrayal and this incredibly on the nose, yet poetically sad and intuitive act of selective story telling, McKay’s thesis of thought as well as style is complete. Vice does much more than paint a picture of American corruption we’ve seen countless times before. It finds a new, occasionally frustrating but often times breathtaking way to tell it.


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