Strange as it sounds, the most transporting moment in Vice, writer/director Adam McKay’s deconstructionist biopic of former vice president Richard B. Cheney (Christian Bale), may be a straightforward scene focused on Cheney’s wife, Lynne (Amy Adams). Back in Casper, Wyoming, after an abortive stint at Yale, Dick has filled his time off from hanging telephone wires with drinking and fighting, provoking a couple of run-ins with the law. Lynne decides to put her foot down. “We’re going to discuss this right now,” she hisses, “while you smell like vomit and cheap booze.” The chewing-out that follows, in which Lynne paces, rages and rather hilariously cuts down her own mother (”’Does Dick want some coffee?’ Jesus Christ!”) before lamenting that she can’t enroll at Yale, helm a company or run for mayor as a man might, is so familiar it amounts to a genre convention: It forces our hero to put away childish things and set off on the road to greatness.
Punch-drunk on its own moonshine, Vice is closer in affect to Cheney’s boss/puppet, George W. Bush, than it is to Dick himself, and as such it paints its opposition to the traditional biopic in neon hues. It opens, for instance, with a new twist on that old canard, “Based on a true story”; swiftly introduces a fourth wall-breaking narrator (Jesse Plemons) with no apparent connection to the film’s subject; and “ends,” before its own midway point, on a note of ersatz valediction, replete with explanatory cards and rolling credits over images of a Cheney family idyll. The key to Vice, though—the reason, despite its flaws, that it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the lower tier of Best Picture nominees that includes Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book—is its placement of McKay’s brasher, clumsier choices alongside his more conventional ones. After all, it’s Lynne’s argument with Dick that leads into the title sequence, with its warning to “Beware the quiet man”—when it comes to the biopic, Vice suggests, it’s the work you can’t see that poses the danger.
It’s no surprise, really, that reactions to the film have been decidedly mixed: Vice is both a genre provocation and a Big Short-style digest of the Bush administration’s misrule, and only the former challenges our prevailing understanding of its subject. But it’s the latter that’s featured most prominently in the film’s reception, to the point that a number of critics at Sundance, most prominently Vulture’s Nate Jones, described the CIA torture memos drama The Report as “the anti-Vice”—which seems at best a half-reading of McKay’s prickly creation. If Vice is a failed indictment of Cheney, handmaiden to war criminals for the better part of four decades, it is nonetheless a successful indictment of the narrative shorthand by which men of his ilk rise to power and exploit it unchecked, by which we’ve come to confuse “privilege” for “greatness,” “corruption” for “efficacy,” “evildoer” for “principled man.” By applying the genre’s heroic template to the cruel, cowardly, profoundly uninteresting Cheney, Vice grabs hold of its diseased heart: The biopic in its classical form, full of elisions and exaggerations, isn’t an answer to the narrator’s central question, “How does a man go on to become who he is?” It’s an attempt to dodge it.
They’re gawky, to be sure, but at least the film’s fantastical excesses—detours into an imagined circle jerk on the White House lawn, an opulent dinner at which “enhanced interrogation” is one of the night’s specials, an inside-the-Beltway board game in which Dick stacks the deck—cop to the biopic’s liberties, as opposed to, say, the film about racial reconciliation that never addresses its blinkered point of view, or the film about a queer, HIV-positive musical icon that manipulates the facts in order to demonize those aspects of his identity. Not long after its faux ending resolves into a ringing phone, for example, Vice finds Lynne looking askance at her husband for even considering the role of Vice President, over which Plemons intones, “We can’t just snap into a Shakespearean soliloquy that dramatizes every feeling and motivation. That’s just not the way the world works.” But it is the way the biopic works, upon which Vice comments with its usual bombast: McKay cuts to the couple climbing into bed, reciting verse to each other from his knockoff Bard. By the end of the sequence, the Cheneys have made their decision, which the film punctuates with a foreboding thunderclap. In other words, Vice may not be true, but it is honest.
More importantly, McKay’s bombast throws his subtler twists on the genre into razor-sharp relief, at once a respite from the film’s in-your-face discomfort and a reminder that nothing in it plays straight. As an intern, our hero’s mentor is no sage of the American system—it’s Don Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), a crass, opportunistic powerbroker with no respect for, or interest in, any of the nation’s stated ideals. As a congressional candidate, that same hero proves so deeply uncharismatic that being hospitalized with heart troubles turns out to be a boon—it’s Lynne, his culture-warrior Lady Macbeth, who reads the way the wind’s blowing and criss-crosses Wyoming inveighing against “liberal snobs.” (“Either he drinks next time,” she quips to the campaign manager after one particularly dire appearance, “or I do.”) As Vice President, the hero’s climactic montage isn’t of triumphs for the commonweal, it’s a compilation of lies, travesties, tragedies and betrayals, from shock and awe through to Rumsfeld’s resignation. Down to its knowingly maudlin strings and the use of Cheney’s cardiac problems for comic relief—he spends so much time bracing against tables and buckling in rotundas that one scare elicits from Lynne an exasperated, “Oh my God, are you kidding me?”—Vice depicts Cheney much as Joan Didion does in her brutalizing 2006 essay in the New York Review of Books:
Here was a man with considerable practice in the reversal of his own errors. He was never a star. No one ever called him a natural. He reached public life with every reason to believe that he would continue to both court failure and overcome it, take the lemons he seemed determined to pick for himself and make the lemonade, then spill it, let someone else clean up.
Vice embraces both the errors and their reversal, the lemons and the lemonade, the spills and the clean-ups, never losing sight of the fundamental fact that its subject is the postwar poster child for failing up, and in this context the film’s overabundance of self-conscious techniques reads as a forgivable sin, a useful corrective. More biopics should question their premises, and the genre’s, rather than delivering the Stations of the Cross routine on behalf of the legacies of its heroes, and if this requires removing the kid gloves of “seriousness,” so be it.
Ultimately, I suspect critics’ trouble with Vice isn’t that it’s not sober enough for the crimes of the Bush years, but that no number of sober condemnations—no Control Room, no Iraq in Fragments, no Standard Operating Procedure or No End in Sight—has yet managed to transform the facts into justice, much less redemption. Vice’s alternate title, after Didion, might be Cheney: The Fatal Touch, which may explain why McKay’s decision to use (and abuse) the biopic form is so discomfiting—Cheney is an irredeemable man.
The final moments of Vice, after Cheney receives a new heart from Plemons’ narrator and throws one daughter (Alison Pill’s Mary) under the bus to boost the political ambition of the other (Lily Rabe’s Liz), witness the outgoing Vice President turn to the camera to address us directly. “I can feel your recriminations and your judgment, and I am fine with that,” he growls. “You chose me, and I did what you asked.” It’s frustrating, of course, that facts and facts alone no longer seem capable of winning the argument, that it isn’t enough to list the consequences of Cheney’s long and quiet hold on the reins of American power. As McKay intuits, though, fiction is fundamental to the biopic, in its telling details and fateful confrontations, its changes of fortune and masterstrokes: It necessarily presents the hero we hoped for, and not the one we actually had. Vice simply turns the form against itself, underscoring its subject’s fatal touch instead of his triumph—our complicity, not our resistance. In this, the traditional biopic is the ne plus ultra of art that maintains the status quo, in that its only merit is fulfilling our expectations. It does what we ask.
McKay’s bomb-throwing anti-biopic may be a blunt instrument, but its refusal to cede to our most facile narrative instincts at least offers an answer to its own guiding question. How does a man go on to become who he is? We make him that way.