VICE: How We Amused Ourselves Into An Eternal War On Terror

“In a free society some are guilty, all are responsible.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

You have to face your role in the problems in your life. That’s a hard lesson to learn, because the instinct is to always blame others for your problems. But the reality is that you can’t control others, you can only control yourself, and so you need to look back at all the fucked up stuff in your life and say “What was my role in that?” By doing this you can move forward without making that same mistake again – whether it’s trusting someone you shouldn’t trust, staying in a relationship you shouldn’t stay in, or not taking part in the political process for a solid decade and change.

See, that’s a big part of what Adam McKay’s Vice is about – the way that all of us, out here amusing ourselves to death, let the Phantom of the Neocons slide into power and totally knock the Earth off its axis, creating the century of chaos in which we now live. It’s not an easy message – and maybe it’s coming at us with a little too much force by the end of the movie, a little too much finger pointing – but it’s a vital message for us all to internalize if we have any hope of saving the world at all.

McKay has become a really fascinating filmmaker, graduating from cult comedy like Anchorman to Oscar bait like Vice, although that trajectory is clear in his work. This hasn’t been a total left turn, and he transitioned us here with the lengthy economic collapse postscript on The Other Guys. I think that McKay doesn’t include himself in the ‘amusing ourselves to death’ because he thinks there’s always been a political undercurrent to his work (Anchorman and Talladega Nights are certainly both films with political commentary, although nowhere near the level that he brings to his ‘serious’ films), but he probably needs to remember that a hand with one finger pointing out has three pointing back.

If McKay is a fascinating filmmaker, Vice is his most fascinating film. I don’t think it’s his most successful – it moves in fits and starts, and while it has a killer twist ending it also farts out in the home stretch – but it’s his most tonally complex, and it’s a movie where you can see him wrestling directly with his subject. In The Big Short he didn’t have any ambivalence, and that movie was like an angry bolt of lightning shot out of a projector. But with Vice you see that McKay has a begrudging respect for this man, this predator, this functionary of evil.

I do wish that McKay had spent a little more time wrestling with that stuff, because there are moments here when he gets at the humanity inside this inhuman man, and that makes for a more compelling morality story. That stuff comes early on, as McKay (who wrote as well as directed the film), examines what formed Dick Cheney in his earliest years. He begins the film with Cheney as a drunk getting kicked out of college, at his lowest point, and while I would have liked to see what Cheney’s youth was all about, what McKay is saying here is that this was an unformed man who found definition in the absolute search for power.

The most telling scene in the whole movie is when, as a Congressional intern, Cheney decides to become a Republican because Donald Rumsfeld is a Republican, and he likes Rumsfeld’s style. This is a man devoid of ideology beyond a desire to be powerful, and I suspect that McKay admires the purity of that drive. McKay keeps coming back to the image of a fisherman, baiting his hook with what the fish want, but I think Cheney here is more like a shark, constantly moving forward, ever alert to the tiny changes in water pressure that indicate prey nearby.

As the movie goes forward in time, McKay gets angrier and begins to lose the human element of Cheney – or maybe he would argue that Cheney himself loses that human element. Near the end of the film there’s a close up shot of Dick Cheney’s heart, literally blackened, sitting on a tray, rubbing our noses in just what has happened to this man over the course of his life, the way he has worn down his very soul.

There’s a tragic story here – man throws away everything good about himself and finds that the power he accumulates doesn’t do anything for him (think the ending of The Godfather Part II) – but right at the end McKay swerves away from that. It’s at the end of the film that McKay’s rage finally truly explodes, and he presents Dick Cheney as an almost eldritch evil, responsible for literally everything bad in the world today. There’s certainly an argument to be made for this, and Vice puts in the legwork to make it. But that ending is definitely a tonal shift because McKay can’t do the Shakespearean tragedy he had been building because you need to like the protagonist on some level to feel the tragedy. You like Michael Corleone, even as you watched him cut out piece after piece of his own soul, and so when he sits alone in the autumn cold you feel for him. While McKay had been playing with Shakespeare – he has Dick and Lynne Cheney do foreplay in Shakespearean prose – he hates the guy too much to take it home.

And so right at the end the movie turns into that montage from A Clockwork Orange where Alex is listening to Beethoven and viddying in his mind all these delightful sights of death and destruction. This is, of course, a truly reasonable ending for this movie, but it also feels like the ending McKay put on there to make sure you 100% understand what he’s saying. See, the earlier parts of the film are way more playful, and McKay uses the standard elements of the biopic – triumphant musical cues! Exhilarating scenes of our hero using his willpower and work ethic to get ahead! Refusal to let little things like heart attacks get in his way! – to underscore Cheney’s journey into the darkness. It’s a riff on the film’s central thematic conceit about amusing ourselves to death, and about the ways the GOP manipulated image to get across their increasingly anti-human agenda. But at the end of the movie it’s like McKay is worried that we didn’t get that all those swells of scores were ironic, and so he needs to walk us through kids in cages and opioid addicts ODing and eternal, crushing war.

Which isn’t to say that the rest of the movie had been subtle. It ain’t. Much like The Big Short and the ending of The Other Guys, McKay hand holds us through history and through legal and political concepts. He doesn’t trust us to know anything, so sections of the movie play out like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dick Cheney and the Eternal War on Terror. Is that bad? I don’t know; there are certainly a lot of people who have no clue what’s going on in the world or what has been going on in the world, and as someone who has half a clue, I don’t mind getting all the pieces laid out before me again. Especially when it’s done as entertainingly as McKay does it in his films; he seems to put most of his energy into these sequences.

Maybe those sequences would come across as pedantic or annoying if that energy was not there; they would almost certainly come across as pedantic or annoying if the film’s performances were not there. This could have been a Saturday Night Live sketch, but McKay’s cast elevates it (although Steve Carrell really skirts the edges of caricature at times). Christian Bale is honestly phenomenal, and you get the sense that he’s making a different movie than McKay is. I don’t mean that in a bad way – Bale throws himself into the role completely, not winking or playing it up. He’s just becoming Dick Cheney, and the transformation is remarkable. He looks like Cheney, which I’m assuming is subtle make-up magic, but more than that he embodies Cheney in a way that feels totally real.

I say feels because who knows Dick Cheney? That’s one of the premises of the film, that this guy took over the American government and steered global history without spending much time in the spotlight, and so there’s the Dick Cheney we think we know – glimpsed in brief, inspired by satirical portrayals – and then there is, inevitably, the real guy. Bale feels like he’s truly on the scent of the real guy, and there’s absolute truth in that performance. Maybe you don’t want to understand Dick Cheney as a human being, but I think it’s vital to understand these guys so we can see them coming, and Bale gives us big insight.

Another astonishing performance is Sam Rockwell as George W Bush. W is like Nixon, a president almost impossible to portray without parody, but Rockwell somehow does it. He gets the mannerisms and the voice – he’s identifiably W – but he plays him as a man, not a joke. He plays him as a guy over his head always looking for someone to tell him what to do, that it’ll be okay. It helps that he played W one time before, as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Maybe Vice should have been a miniseries. As the film gets to the Bush presidency and the Eternal War on Terror things get contracted; there’s a lot to cover and little time. As a result one of the film’s more interesting characters – Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife – gets sidelined. Played with impermeable malice by Amy Adams, Vice makes a case for this Lady MacBeth as one of the driving forces behind everything wrong with the world today. The complex relationship between Dick and Lynne is incredible, and Bale and Adams have absolute chemistry. Not the sexy kind, but the criminal conspiracy kind. If Vice had been allowed to expand, to be a six part series on HBO, maybe, we could have gotten a lot more Lynne, who comes in and out of the film as the dark charismatic figure behind Dick.

But also behind Dick: us. Cheney is the fisherman, and we are the fish, either getting hooked or just looking the other way as others are hooked. The film features GOP focus groups wherein their awful policies are tested (it’s where they decided to stop talking about the ‘estate tax’ and focus on the ‘death tax’ instead, and perhaps where they decided to invade Iraq), and in the middle of the credits the movie breaks the fourth wall and shows us that this focus group has been watching the film. As a MAGAt and a libtard brawl, a young woman turns to her friend and says “I can’t wait to watch the new Fast and Furious movie. It looks lit!”

The argument here is that either we’re distracted by fighting one another – as Cheney has zero ideology he doesn’t give a shit about the stuff that the MAGAt cares about – or we’re just hopelessly distracted by the stuff that doesn’t matter. But McKay wants us to understand that we’re supposed to be the bulwark against guys like Cheney, that the system counts on us to be involved to avoid these kinds of assholes. The film opens with this admonition and it closes with it, and everything along the way is in service of it.

It’s a tough pill to swallow. Maybe you voted. And you certainly didn’t decide to send American troops to Iraq on false pretences. But things got this bad, and we were all here for it; while we maybe didn’t make it happen, did we do enough to stop it from happening? This is the central ethical concern that we all must face in this ever more connected, shrinking world – have we done enough? Or did we decide that we needed to treat ourselves, to relax more, to turn off our brains for the evening? McKay isn’t quite blaming us for doing that (he sort of is, but the opening narration about the zombification of America does make an effort to cut us some slack), but he is challenging us to stop being this way.

That the movie making this challenge is part of the circus sideshow that is awards season (did you see the internet explode when it discovered at the Golden Globes that Christian Bale is British?) is ironic in the extreme. But here we are – how else do you cut through the noise? I think a lot about how The Big Short laid it all out there, was very angry, won awards… and seems to have had no appreciable impact whatsoever. Twitter is full of people yelling at each other over this stuff, and it also seems to have had no appreciable impact whatsoever.

(True story: one of my jobs is at a movie theater. A guy came in and bought a ticket for Vice. He asked me, “Does it have good action?” I was like, “There’s no action at all,” and he said, “Isn’t it about vice cops?” When I told him what it was about he returned his ticket and bought one for Mortal Engines instead.)

Anyway, the only way to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past is to understand your part in them, and to avoid doing that same thing again. Is this a lesson we’re ever going to learn? Will we ever stop amusing ourselves to death, stop ceding the country to these monsters who care only for power and control?

Maybe we’ll figure it out after we binge this show on Netflix this weekend. After all, we worked really hard and we deserve some time. Treat. Yo. Self.

“The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel