However, Vice has these flashes of humanization around a caricature of a man with no real motivations beyond power accumulation. Cheney’s early life of drunken slovenliness is one free of lessons, a choice partly admirable in avoiding the pat A-to-B physcologizing of bad biopics, but when a film chooses to include scenes, one wonders why. A particular head-scratcher involves a young Cheney as a lineman who witnesses a fellow worker fall from a telephone pole and shatter his legs, only for the foreman to send the man to the hospital with $5 in his pocket and menacingly ask the crew if anyone has a problem with that. This could be a scene from the origin story of a liberal lion fighting for workers’ rights, but it’s in a film about a corporatist. Why is it the latter instead of the former? Vice has no idea, and this marks Cheney as an empty vessel to be filled up by Lynne, an ambitious woman who will not be married to a blue-collar man who lives in squalor and spends nights in jail for drunk driving.
Prodded by Lynne to get his act together, Cheney starts his ascension. He experiences a meteoric rise through the Republican machinery of the 70’s, aided by his alliance with the energetically amoral Don Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). In their first meeting, Rumsfeld is giving a speech to new interns, of which Cheney is one, and the politically unshapen man only wants to be a Republican because he wants to be on the same team as the no-bullshit speaker. McKay again makes Cheney into a shapeless character, this time to be molded by Rumsfeld’s principle-free climber. There’s no engagement with why Lynne wants to be powerful, just as there’s no engagement with why Rumsfeld wants to be powerful. Being in, to quote Hamilton, the room where it happens is shown to be all the characters want, as exemplified by an effective scene of a joyous young Cheney being shown to his closet/office in the White House and calling Lynne to tearfully tell her the news.
Vice moves quickly through his time as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, a Wyoming Congressman, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, and his time as Halliburton CEO, eliding any important experiences he might have had in these positions beyond a lingering obsession with the unitary executive theory, here distilled into the president as king. Vice exists to dramatize Cheney’s time as VP, and it chooses to take a generalized view of this story. McKay includes some nods toward the magnitude of the job in the wake of 9/11, like Cheney’s flawed decision to get raw, unconfirmed reports of terrorist threats that undoubtedly warped his thinking, but a scene like that, where he is considering the aftermath of a dirty bomb or coordinated, nationwide attacks on soft targets, exists next to scenes where a snooty waiter, potrayed by Alfred Molina, presents Cheney and his cronies with a menu of torture options. A mature director considers how people arrive at cruel decisions. An immature one recognizes that the menu scene is a bad sketch that doesn’t make it onto Saturday Night Live, a show that McKay used to write for and should therefore recognize a half-baked idea when he sees one. Both versions of McKay exist in tandem in Vice, but the immature version vastly outweighs the mature one.
When Spielberg makes a Lincoln biopic, he’s adapting history that only scholars know about, but Vice is recent history that everyone who makes their way into a theater showing an R-rated film was alive for. Even the casual observer of national politics would know that Cheney was increasingly marginalized by W’s administration before the entire administration became so toxic that it wasn’t invited to its own party’s national convention. They would also know that Cheney’s close subordinate Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) was convicted of crimes and W refused to pardon him, and that the modern Republican party as represented by Trump is a wholesale repudiation of Cheney’s neoconservative wing. That’s an arc, where Cheney gets the power he wants and overplays it, but McKay is operating on a much simpler level with much less respect for his audience. He assumes the average viewer is on the same level as they were in The Big Short, and while that’s a justifiable choice when talking about the financial collapse, it’s not justified in Vice.
It’s possible that McKay simply hasn’t considered how benignly political corruption can happen. By showing nothing of his time in Halliburton, the viewer doesn’t get to see Cheney build relationships that by their nature will make him a corrupt figure when he returns to the White House. This could’ve been Vice’s primary contribution to political cinema, similarly to how The Post considered the relationship between politicians and the press. Instead, Cheney must be evil, rendering him either a singular aberration or a ticking time bomb that no one could’ve seen coming. If McKay was indicting power and its ability to drive cruelty, then he might have to consider the inevitability of a leader, irrespective of party, driving towards brutal outcomes. Instead, we’re in liberal cliff notes territory, spending more time on the incidental time that Cheney cursed at a Democratic higher-up than on the pivotal Libby indictment, which isn’t included at all. The film ends with a post-credits scene of a focus group for the film dissolving into partisan rancor and bubble-headed pop culture distraction, a scolding moment from the increasingly strident McKay who is himself a man who spent a part of the 2000’s selecting the right material for a fake scrotum in Step Brothers, a comedy I love that isn’t rendered frivolous just because it wasn’t raising awareness about the torture and war crimes being perpetrated during its production. If McKay wants to be some kind of cinematic explainer, that’s fine, but he needs to have something to say. Empty applause lines are for guest appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. C