Adam McKay has a laser focus for symbol, concept, and humor. He’s less interested in story or character, except as they function symbolically, conceptually, and humorously, which, as a stylistic approach to the subjects at the heart of his recent films, serves him well. The Big Shortstood out due to its unique portrayal of social issues depicted entertainingly yet with sturdy conceptual integrity. Vice uses similar melodramatic devices, but, in an era of political division when we sidestep discussion of our values to push ideological prescriptions, the film covers the conversation of belief with laughter. I struggled with the discomfort the film evoked in me. I found the film oppressive. Despite sharing what I assumed were its views, I felt the film spoon feeding me my beliefs, already chewed, partially digested, and satirically performed, at times in mock Shakespearian. Sitting with my discomfort, I realized that, perhaps, was the point. Viceposes, through the way it tells its story by embodying its own depiction of deceit, the very question of what our values might truly be without providing the answers for any of us, regardless of our political slant.
Vicedepicts on the screen and evokes within the viewer, accurately or not, the valuation of power, force, and control, as long as we, whoever our group may be while holding whatever perspective we may hold, are in power. The characters scramble to acquire as much power as possible when they can, as opportunistically as they can, and we squirm, sweat, and gasp impotently at the very idea.
When the narrator first speaks, the question he poses: “How does a man go on to become who he is?”, which follows the title card: “The following is a true story,” suggests, hilariously, we’re being told the story of Vice President Cheney by an unreliable narrator, who we later learn is a figment of the liberal imagination symbolizing the ever-present victim to which our righteous indignation clings, a narrator who survived the war to have his heart pulled from his chest to fill the gaping hole at the center of an obese Dick. From this perspective, we’re shown scenes from the life of Cheney. The power of the image, the substance of the filmmaker’s craft, is on full display, proving the power of media, a power which permeates our current political constitution. We see what we’re meant to see, and we see it from our own perspectives. We know those perspectives by how we read the title of the film, either moral depravity and corruption or one that takes the place of another. And yet, the man at the heart of the film lives. His children, grandchildren, and wife live. They’re members of our larger community, and at some point, we need to ask ourselves if we’ve forgotten that and substituted a caricature for a living, breathing human. Incidentally, the man whose heart is removed to give the film a voice never existed, at least not as depicted in the film.
Donald Rumsfeld, as played by Steve Carell, provides a direct lineage across the spectrum of baby boomer politics, from Nixon and the senate class of 1948 through Bush the second and echoing in today’s rhetoric of crisis, and the specter of baby boomer politics, a politics of self-indulgence, activism, and privilege, haunts every aspect of contemporary culture and social policy, even as we move, however slowly, in a different direction. Although an obvious caricature of the historical Rumsfeld, Carell’s portrayal lends an opportunistic, buoyant funnyman to Christian Bale’s Cheney, a brooding, slow talking, contemplative straight man. This pairing does an excellent job of teasing out a piece of history, though without being historically accurate. While Carell’s character believes in nothing, the audience sees a Bale character working diligently to sew his beliefs within the fabric of national government. Opportunism aside, the character of Cheney believes in individuality and the role of the government to support the power of the individual, no matter how disproportionate that power may be across a society or to what degree the power of one individual or group may disrupt equality within the collective. Cheney knows his values and believes fervently in them, as is alluded to in the film, but they’re never clearly articulated. How could they be? The film is voiced by the liberal imagination.
As I squirmed in my seat, disgusted by the bloated representation of my culture and its impact on the world, I realized that I wasn’t watching history and I wasn’t watching my culture. I was watching my own bigotry, however humorous and creatively depicted. The historical Dick Cheney is a real human with beliefs, desires, ideas, and problems, and although he and I may not have much in common (hopefully?), we have that much in common. The hole at the heart of this film isn’t in Cheney’s chest; it’s at the center of our politics. In order to fill that hole, we need to take a breath and look at what we value, not what we want or what we think others should do or understand, but what value, when we are most honest with ourselves, and how, if at all, our actions coincide with those values. Being destructive comes easily, often as a byproduct of desire, as the film shows. Being productive takes energy and focus and requires patience, time, and depth.