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Vice doesn’t want to humanize Dick Cheney. So instead, it (maybe) demonizes America.

In which we argue about Adam McKay’s controversial new movie.

Christian Bale plays former Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Few movies in 2018 have been more divisive than Vice, writer-director Adam McKay’s tale of the modern Republican Party as concentrated in the person of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Early reviews from critics were sharply divided between those who loved the film and those who despised it — as well as plenty who gave it mixed reviews.

Of McKay’s body of work, Vice has a lot in common with his previous film, 2015’s The Big Short, which was based on a book by journalist Michael Lewis about four men who saw the housing crisis looming and bet against the market. That movie was also met with divided critical opinions. But it was certainly a funny, angry film that offered an inside look at a complicated issue, and made a persuasive argument that left the audience steaming.

Vice is different, perhaps because everyone in it was a public figure and is portrayed by some famous actor. Christian Bale plays Cheney, and he — along with Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush — take up most of the screen time. But there’s a parade of familiar supporting characters too, including Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk), and Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), as well as many senators, Congress members, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and others. The list goes on and on and on, with some folks just walking through scenes briefly like ghosts from the past.

Watching Vice can feel like watching a highlight reel from the late 20th and early 21st century, except not in a good way. And certainly, the movie is not an attempt to convert anyone to a new way of thinking; the audience for this sort of film is likely already sympathetic to the most obvious of McKay’s theses, which is that Dick Cheney is a heartless guy. But there are other ideas at play here too.

Alissa Wilkinson’s rating:

Todd VanDerWerff’s rating:

As it happens, Vox’s critics often disagree about movies (though only rarely do we come to blows). That was the case with Vice, when I (Alissa Wilkinson) returned from my recent screening, frustrated and disappointed, and my colleague Todd VanDerWerff said he’d liked the movie.

So instead of just taking it on myself, I thought the best way to approach the film — in the spirit of conversation and bipartisanship sorely lacking in Washington, partly thanks to the very events chronicled in Vice — would be to have a conversation with Todd about the movie, seeing if we could reconcile our two opinions, or at least help show what critics both like and hate about Vice.

Above are our respective ratings; below is our conversation. You can make up your own mind.

(Moderate spoilers for the movie follow.)

The Bushes and the Cheneys (played by Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, and Andrea Wright) in Adam McKay’s Vice.
The Bushes and the Cheneys (played by Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, and Andrea Wright) in Adam McKay’s Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Two critics see a movie — with very different results

Alissa Wilkinson: Todd, I hated this movie, in a way I’ve hated few movies this year. And I know you liked it much better than I did. But to me, it felt shoddily made and directionless.

Vice is definitely angry, and it aims its barbs at Cheney and both Bush administrations. Adam McKay has proved in the past he can skewer his targets with gusto (I’m a big fan of The Big Short). But I can’t figure out what Vice’s motives are, or what we’re meant to take away from the film — and I think some of the fault falls in McKay’s lap.

Now, the two of us are similar in many ways: We were both raised in pretty conservative homes, probably ones that voted Republican. We’re both old enough to remember both Bush administrations clearly. We’ve both gotten older and realized that history is always more complex than it seems when you’re young.

What I’m trying to say is, I think we’re both the target audience for this movie. So it’s interesting that we came away with such different perspectives. How would you characterize your reaction? What feeling did you leave the theater with?

Todd VanDerWerff: I think I’m just enough older than you that I had started to question conservative policies in earnest early in the George W. Bush administration, and the push to invade Iraq, which sent a couple of my friends overseas for what turned out to be a largely pointless endeavor (they survived, thank goodness), was what really pushed me away from the Republican Party I had grown up with. So maybe for that reason, I read Vice pretty differently than you. The same goes for most of my critic friends (who also hated it), and maybe even Adam McKay himself.

I will say that when I left the theater, I felt both righteously angry and desperately sad. I had spent roughly 90 minutes resisting Vice, wondering if it was secretly terrible, and then somewhere around that mark (roughly coinciding with the Iraq material, about 90 minutes into the movie’s 132-minute running time), something just clicked for me and clicked for me hard. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as I was in the immediate wake of the screening — it wouldn’t quite make my top 10 for the year, and if you’d asked me right after I watched it, I would have sworn it would. Its flaws are more readily apparent to me now.

But I also found something haunted at the movie’s core. I read Vice less as a political screed than as a character study, of Cheney and of the country he helped lead. It has some elements that I think are actively, even aggressively bad, and I hate that literally the last thing viewers see is the worst moment of the film. I totally understand why some critics hate this movie. But for me, it worked in all its messy excess.

(That said, you can see evidence that McKay cut this thing down to the nubbin and couldn’t decide if it was a comedy or a drama for much of the editing process. That tonal confusion is all over the film!)

Christian Bale and Amy Adams and Dick and Lynne Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams as Dick and Lynne Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Do the metaphors work?

Alissa Wilkinson: Setting aside tonal confusion for a bit — I agree! — I found the central metaphors to be hopelessly muddled. The film that Vice most resembled, to me, was Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Part of the reason I love that flawed film is that it quite consciously uses the tropes of the vampire movie to paint Nixon as a kind of vampire himself, lacking his own signs of life but draining everyone around him to stay afloat. It ends with Nixon literally haunting the shadows of the White House, alone. It has an (angry) point of view about its subject, and it uses that vampire metaphor to make its point in cinematic vocabulary.

But Vice smooshes a bunch of metaphors together, none of which are particularly illuminating. There’s something about fly-fishing (flies even appear over the first batch of end credits) — to be honest, I can’t make heads or tails of this at all — and then there’s what I’d consider the catastrophic example involving Cheney’s literal, physical heart. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say that by the time I figured out where the movie was going, I somehow found it both too simple and startlingly repulsive.

I’d love to know if you saw those metaphors differently, or noted others that worked. But I’d also like to know what you think about a debate that seems to have arisen between the film’s early boosters and its sharpest critics.

Do you think Vice “humanizes” Cheney? If so, should it have? If not, did it fail?

Todd VanDerWerff: I would agree with you that more than a few of the movie’s metaphors fall flat, particularly if you were at least somewhat cognizant of Cheney’s machinations back in the 2000s. I liked the fly-fishing thing as a visual motif (rivers are pretty!), but it never really sank in the way McKay wanted it to.

But I’m going to disagree on the heart metaphor, which is one of my favorite storytelling devices of the year and a key dividing line, I think, between those of us who like Vice even mildly and those of us who don’t.

You and I have talked outside of this piece about how the movie reminds us of Nixon — a similarly jumbled, weighty, flawed film made by a director at the height of his power and craft, concerning very recent current events, and where the performances are maybe better than the movie itself. And I would agree Nixon is better than Vice, but not that much better. But your mention of Nixon’s vampire movie overtones made me realize something: While watching Vice, I kept thinking about it as a zombie movie.

Now, McKay doesn’t really build this thread visually in the way Oliver Stone did with vampirism in Nixon. But he stages scenes where hordes of Dick Cheneys and Dick Cheney operatives plop themselves down in Washington, slowly crowding out everybody who’s loyal to anyone else (up to and including George W. Bush, the ostensible president), and he structures Vice in a way where Cheney dies several times — mostly politically, but he also has several heart attacks — only to keep stumbling back out of the grave. (Yes, he’s still alive!) And his conception of modern conservatism is of a movement that seeks only to consume, to keep eating, even if it destroys future generations.

A scene from Vice.
A scene from Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

This is why the heart worked for me. For one thing, I liked the way that just having Jesse Plemons around borrowed the “celebrities explain complicated concepts” device from The Big Short (which I didn’t think quite worked in that movie) and rooted it in something like a character, albeit one drawn in broad sketches. For another, I liked the way it became a very potent metaphor for the way Cheney’s generation literally stole from the future to enrich themselves. Younger people die so older people can live lives of endless consumption.

This gets at what I said in my first response about the movie as a kind of character study, or even a character mystery. What causes people to do this? What makes them concerned primarily with the self, rather than the collective? There’s plenty of research suggesting this core difference in political philosophies might be hardwired into our brains, and if you’re someone like McKay, you probably can’t quite understand it but want to try. Vice is perhaps too scared of humanizing Cheney here and there, but I think the way it keeps poking at his exterior to ask if there’s really a heart in there somewhere eventually attains the level of Shakespearean tragedy McKay seems to be going for.

Just, y’know, not the scene where the characters actually perform Shakespeare, which is pretty silly.

Does Vice hate us?

Alissa Wilkinson: While watching the movie, I thought that scene actually was Shakespeare, as Lynne and Dick Cheney uttered dialogue that sounded like it could be from Richard III. But I looked it up, and McKay wrote it himself. I will humbly suggest none of us ever try that again.

In any case, that brings me to my biggest quibble with Vice: For much of it, I felt like I couldn’t get a grasp on the movie because the tone seemed odd. Was it comedy? Satire? Parody? Screed? And if the latter, is it a screed against Cheney et al.?

Part of the reason I couldn’t sort this out is that I liked how The Big Short was both angry and informative. Like, if you didn’t know why the housing crisis happened in the first place — and most people really didn’t, and still don’t — then seeing the movie would actually be enlightening, in a way that was bound to make you angry. So I was confused as to why there didn’t seem to be much, if anything, enlightening about Vice. Not that a movie has to teach us something, but for a long stretch, it seemed like this one wanted to.

Sam Rockwell and Christian Bale as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in Vice.
Sam Rockwell and Christian Bale as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

It wasn’t till I got to the post-credits scene that everything fell into place, and not in a good way. In that scene, the movie breaks the fourth wall, going back to a focus group that appeared earlier in the movie to weigh in on some Republican Party messaging. Except now they are discussing the movie itself. One middle-aged man gets angry about the movie being full of “liberal” messages; another corrects him. Both are dressed and styled according to stereotypes of what a “liberal” and a “conservative” look like, and they end up in a fistfight after hurling insults at each other. The word “libtard” pops up.

But then a young woman whose look and affect are meant clearly meant to signal “millennial” turns to her friend, expresses her boredom, and says that what she really wants to watch is the new Fast & Furious movie.

The disdain at this point is pretty palpable, and I can only assume that we’re supposed to share in it. Or, at least, that McKay is very comfortable with signaling his own disgust for all these people, especially her. And this is on top of several moments throughout the movie in which we, the audience, are castigated for having been more interested in entertainment during the era the film covers than in the things that “really” matter.

As some have pointed out, it’s a tad rich for McKay — the brains behind movies like Anchorman and Step Brothers — to be angry at the audience for spending their time going to see movies instead of figuring out what was going on in Iraq. And for me, that post-credits focus group scene in particular put the movie in a whole new light: Vice isn’t a movie about how awful Dick Cheney is. He, a heartless monster, almost couldn’t help himself. In a late speech to the audience, he says that it’s basically all our fault; we elected him, after all.

Instead, Vice is a movie about how stupid we are. And look: I agree that the entertainment-ification of the news in particular has been a singular and driving force for bad in American politics. I agree that many if not most Americans, myself included, are not nearly as sober-minded about government and civic responsibility as we ought to be. That’s evident all around us today.

But if that was McKay’s point all along, and he intended to state it bluntly, is a movie like Vice really the most effective vehicle for it?

Todd VanDerWerff: I was actually with the post-credits scene until the millennial woman made her comment about Fast & Furious, which I’ll agree was maybe the worst thing in the whole movie. Before that point, though, I think McKay is covering his own ass to some degree. Vice really is going to be written off as liberal propaganda in a lot of corners. And even if he spent a fair chunk of the movie explaining — in a this-goes-nowhere-but-is-still-kind-of-interesting subplot about the rise of the conservative media bubble — why some people will react in that fashion, I absolutely understand the impulse to say, “I know some of you feel this way.”

But the scene doesn’t stop there, where it could have been read as an attempt at self-deprecation, something Vice really needs in that scene. (The two men in the focus group wouldn’t have been out of place in Anchorman, after all!) Instead, it continues with the two women, which casts the whole scene and the whole film retroactively in a way that’s flattering to neither. And I think if I was on the same page as both you and most of my critical colleagues in reading the movie as a bromide against the American public, I would have hated it too.

But what comes before that scene is more messy and complicated than even McKay realizes. And I mean literally before that scene, as the closing credits unspool to the tune of “America” from West Side Story.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

The Big Short is more conventionally successful than this movie because it has a fairly airtight narrative arc, an underdog story about a bunch of people who bet big on the world economy collapsing and then slowly became prophets of doom along the way. But Vice wrestles with the idea that the central tenets of America just as often lead to a Dick Cheney as they do to an Abraham Lincoln.

Early in the movie, there’s a lengthy (probably unnecessary) montage on the power of the unitary executive theory — the idea that an action is legal because the president does it, more or less — and it flips just as readily between the sorts of people easily written off as villains within the framework of this film (like Cheney himself) and people routinely celebrated as American heroes (like Teddy Roosevelt). We are a country at war against ourselves, driven by these two impulses, and even if McKay thinks he’s making a fictionalized Fahrenheit 9/11, he’s accidentally succeeded in making a movie about our split consciousness.

That’s part of the reason I found Cheney’s final turn toward the camera an audacious choice that worked for me. Throughout the film, McKay shoots Cheney so that he’s never quite looking at us. We’re never invited into his head, even when he’s doing things that other movies would play up as admirable — like when he forgoes seeking the presidency to keep his daughter, who is a lesbian, from having her private life dragged through the press.

When he finally does look at us, it’s to deliver a self-pitying lecture about how he saved the country and maybe even the world, even as the rest of the movie has hammered home that he damned it instead, even if he’ll be dead long before the consequences come home to roost.

And for all of McKay’s shenanigans (and trust me, readers, we’ve spoiled maybe a quarter of them), for all of Vice’s tonal confusion, for everything else about it, that thread holds everything together. This movie pales in comparison to many of McKay’s best comedies (Step Brothers forever!), and it is not as satisfying a film as The Big Short, and its flaws are much, much deeper. But I think it is, in the end, a better one.

That said: the performances. Even the negative reviews seem to be into them, and I’ll admit I’m slightly tired of Christian Bale’s whole “I’m going to radically transform myself for a role” thing, but I liked him here. Meanwhile, it was the supporting players who really grabbed me, especially Amy Adams (effectively blending her Drop Dead Gorgeous and The Master characters into one person) and Steve Carell (as a weird, sad, terrifying Donald Rumsfeld). Did you like the acting?

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in Vice.
Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson: I think Amy Adams is one of the best actresses working today, and I, too, recalled her performance in The Master (one of my favorite films of all time) while watching her in Vice — the supportive wife who also has a lot of power of her own. And yes: Carell was good too, mining just a little bit of the latent pathetic Michael Scott, but for a guy who actually had power.

My other performance pick would be Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, and the reason for that gets at why I haven’t mentioned Christian Bale. I think Bale is great, generally. But his performance here struck me more as an impression of Cheney than a performance (I had the same issue with Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody this year, and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour last year). It can be hard to split the difference, and it can be hard to explain.

But I often think of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote; he didn’t look like Truman Capote, but he embodied something essential about him, something that revealed a famous figure to us in a new way. I didn’t think Bale’s performance in Vice did anything like that. Mostly I just forgot sometimes that beneath all those prosthetics, it wasn’t actual, snarling Cheney. Rockwell did look like George W. Bush, but I felt more like he’d caught the heart of the character he was playing — who both is and isn’t Bush, by necessity — and spooled him out brilliantly, both petulant and boastful.

In the end, though, I think what turned me off so hard on Vice (in addition to its aforementioned disdain for the audience) is that I feel like McKay has it in him to do something so much better — something truly satirical, enlightening, enraging, and funny. I got the feeling midway through this movie that I sometimes get when I read a bad op-ed or a half-baked review: that it started out as a good idea and then belly-flopped on delivery.

Which is bound to happen sometimes, even with the best filmmakers. And since I guess I get the last word here, I’ll say that for all of its faults — which are a bigger problem in my reckoning than in yours — I think Vice is the sort of movie that shows the promise of Adam McKay’s brand of political filmmaking.

I truly hope he does not attempt a movie about Donald Trump anytime soon; there will be plenty of time for that in the future. But I wouldn’t mind seeing him tackle, say, someone like Scott Pruitt, or focus more squarely on the 24/7 cable news industry. (He’s been announced as director for a movie about Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, which sounds great to me.) He’s got the skills to do it well, even when they get tangled.

Vice opens in theaters on Christmas Day.