Every awards season, the ‘critical community’ – aka Film Twitter – settles on a film to hate. It might be considered ideologically inappropriate, artistically impotent or simply have the bad fortune of being up against an unquestioned masterpiece, but there’s always something to rail against. In recent years, we’ve had American Hustle, La La Land, The Revenant, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl and American Sniper to complain about – some justifiably, some not.
This year, the obvious frontrunner was Bohemian Rhapsody. I’ve yet to see the film, but by all reports, its uncomfortable self-loathing presentation of Freddie Mercury’s queerness, its allegiance to biopic clichés and the stories swirling around director Bryan Singer suggest that there’s some merit to the distaste engulfing the film, despite audience acclaim. Ah, but here’s Vice to take the crown. Shortly after racking up a half-dozen Golden Globes nominations, the film has become the latest target of critical vitriol. Unjustifiably, in my opinion.
Adam McKay’s blackly comic biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney took the full brunt of critical revulsion when embargoes dropped. The Guardian characterised it as a “PowerPoint biopic.” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson complained that the film “obfuscates more than it illuminates.” The Daily Beast went a step further, suggesting that Vice “might be the worst movie of the year” in the headline of its review.
While I’ve tried to avoid digging too far into the critical conversation before compiling my own review – I find that it’s hard to express an honest opinion with dozens of other opinions circling one’s head – from the breadcrumbs I’ve sampled here and there, the primary problem with Vice seems to be its inability to align perfectly with each critic’s own view of the Bush era of American politics. Maybe that’s unfair, but when you see some complain about how the film humanises Cheney as others lament that he’s too robotically evil, or one critic disparage McKay’s inability to link Cheney’s corruption to broader structural issues while others raise contradictory complaints, it’s hard not to conclude that most critics resent the film’s reluctance to share their precise perspective on Bush, Cheney et al.
Perhaps that’s not a surprise. If you’re of the millennial or younger Gen X generation, that era of politics would’ve likely been hugely formative. And it’s understandable that politically-engaged critics would be across the facts of Bush’s reign and have their own take. But that’s not the audience that McKay is targeting with Vice, which – like The Big Short before it – is intended as an educational document with enough entertainment value to appeal to mainstream moviegoers. McKay throws everything and the kitchen sink at this movie: meta-commentary, fourth wall breaks, fake ending credits, a ridiculous narrator gambit while borrowing liberally from the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino. The Big Short had Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the conditions that led to the global financial crisis; Vice has Alfred Molina as a waiter drily explaining extraordinary rendition to the Bush administration.
If you’re looking for fantastic filmmaking, you’re not going to find it here. McKay has always been more of an actor’s director – which explains his success with comedic films like Anchorman and Step Brothers – with little regard for what makes an interesting shot. The editing here is scattershot; hell, some shots aren’t even properly focused. That said, the acting is excellent; as Dick Cheney, Christian Bale once again delivers the kind of committed, transformative performance he’s now known for, and he’s consistently convincing. The supporting cast – Amy Adams as his wife, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell clad in prosthetics to play Dubya – are equally impressive, and warrant the awards season attention whether you like it or not.
Equally, if you’re looking for nuanced politics, this isn’t the film for you. As has been clear since the credits of The Other Guys, McKay is an unapologetic liberal. But like Michael Moore before him, he’s more interested in providing an entertaining argument than a screed. Vice is fundamentally a persuasive essay, presenting a litany of facts to inform and influence the audience’s opinion. But where most essays of such a stripe aim to make you feel guilty or outraged, Vice’s first priority is to ensure you have a good time.
You can nitpick about the particulars. Yes, Cheney is somewhat of a cipher, with his motivations remaining cloudy throughout. (The post-credits crawl, noting that Halliburton’s shares ballooned in value over the Bush era, should be sufficient explanation, but the ambiguity is justified by the film’s attempts to keep to the facts where possible.) And yes, the broad explanations might insult the intelligence of some viewers watching the film. But as a film intended for broad audiences, those broad explanations make sense. And while Vice’s loose, shambolic style doesn’t always work, it is entertaining throughout.
Stepping aside from critics for a moment, I think what me makes me like Vice more than most is that it is, fundamentally, an effective educational tool. Young people might be better-informed nowadays than previous generations, but as a high school teacher I can’t help but lament the number of students and young teachers with no interest in politics beyond what ends up on meme pages. Something like Vice makes contemporary politics fun while simultaneously underlining its monstrous corruption. Frankly, I don’t care if it doesn’t deserve the same awards attention as If Beale Street Could Talk; we need more films like this, not fewer.