‘Vice’ Can’t Be Funny So Long as It’s Based on an Ongoing Tragedy
Like director Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” the 2015 film that explained the housing market crash of 2007, “Vice” is a black comedy about a tragedy.
McKay’s new film focuses on the backstory of Dick Cheney’s ascension from sloppy drunk ne’er-do-well to the heavy-breathing, heart-challenged Darth Vader behind the George W. Bush presidency.
The title alludes to “vice” in at least two of its meanings: as in vice president and as in pure evil. This, I think, is one indication of how hard McKay is trying.
Comedy, say the scientists of the art, equals tragedy plus time. In the case of “The Big Short,” released almost eight years after the events satirized (and after the economy had rebounded), enough time had passed. “Vice” hits screens almost 18 years after Cheney was elected , yet it feels like a case of tragedy plus not enough time. Or, as comedians put it, too soon.
It’s not that the film is entirely misbegotten. The virtuoso performances of Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Lynne and Sam Rockwell as Dubya are nuanced and wryly funny. I laughed at the actors’ sharp caricatures of Dick and Lynne Cheney as the Macbeths of the millennium. Here is a Washington power couple who use the 9/11 attacks to further consolidate their base of power—while embodying Henry Kissinger’s maxim that power is a great aphrodisiac.
And I laughed at a scene in which Cheney, already depicted as an expert angler, reels in Dubya by feigning reluctance, agreeing to be his running mate if it’s not just a symbolic job. “I’ll handle the mundane things,” Cheney pretends to concede, in his ghostlike whisper. Mundane things like “bureaucracy, military, energy and foreign policy.” At the time, Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, which provides services to oilfields around the world. The film’s indictment of Cheney as the type of politician who led not in the public interest but in his own self-interest is clear in a subtitle informing the audience that Halliburton stock rose by 500 percent when, after 9/11, Cheney advocated war in the Middle East.
Given the present partisan chasm, though, it feels nihilistic to laugh at a movie that so puckishly delights in further polarizing Republicans and Democrats. (I did, however, laugh heartily at the contention of Breitbart movie reviewer John Nolte that liberals and conservatives were united in their hatred of McKay’s movie.)
I don’t hate “Vice.” I’ve long felt it was odd that because of Shakespeare and Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “The Crown”), I know more about the Houses of Lancaster and Windsor than about American politics. That filmmakers such as Oliver Stone (“Nixon,” “W”) and McKay are creating American histories means that American audiences can learn the stories behind the stories of U.S. political leadership.
The most pertinentof the many stories McKay tells here is that of Cheney’s interest in advancing the “unitary executive theory,” or what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency.” Some interpretations of the theory hold that the other two branches of the United States government cannot tell the executive branch what to do. Invoking national security concerns, after 9/11, then-Vice President Cheney expanded executive authority over domestic surveillance and so-called “enhanced interrogation.”
“Vice” is not the holiday comedy I can laugh at during the tenure of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The movie, however, does purvey one image that is hard to shake. It’s an exterior shot of a woman playing golf while behind her on the horizon is a huge fire about to swallow the back nine as Cheney swallowed the presidency. I agree with McKay on this: America is golfing as the nation burns.