Read: ‘The Big Short’: Sound and fury on Wall Street
With Vice, McKay is trying to accomplish the same trick, but he comes up, well, short. In part, this is because The Big Short introduced us to characters with whom few people were familiar, and detailed a story of which we generally knew only the most rudimentary contours. Vice, by contrast, features some of the most-covered figures of the 21st century—George W. Bush, Dick and Lynne Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, etc.—and takes us through events that we are unlikely ever to forget: the 2000 presidential-election recount, 9/11, the Iraq War.
Rather than tamp down his inclination toward wackiness in light of such material, McKay takes it up to 11: His bells are topped with more bells, and his whistles bellow like air horns. The movie features pseudo-Shakespearean soliloquies between Dick and Lynne and a fantasy sequence in which, post-9/11, the VP and his cronies are in a fancy restaurant, having the (policy) menu read to them by the maître d’hôtel: enemy combatant, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay … (“We’ll have them all,” Cheney replies, to laughs on all sides.) Scenes of Cheney fishing are scattered throughout the film, both as homage to one of the biographies McKay drew on—Barton Gellman’s Angler—and as metaphor for Cheney’s patient ability to reel in power. Halfway through the picture there is a fake end-credits sequence, the punchline of which will be known to virtually every viewer before the gag even begins.
The (invented) dialogue between the principal characters less resembles how conservatives actually talk than how liberals sometimes like to imagine they do, full of malice and disdain. And for any who might miss the message, the movie supplies an exceptionally awkward voice-over by everyman Jesse Plemons, who offers such bromides as, “Dick was becoming sharper and sharper as a Washington insider” and “His true calling: He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power.”
What makes this all such a pity is that beneath the overworked, loudspeaker evocations of stories most of us already know lie interesting details of which I suspect we were largely unaware. Everyone, for instance, knows about George W. Bush’s ill-spent youth. But it was news to me that Cheney had been an even greater screwup in his early 20s: expelled from Yale, jailed for drunk driving on more than one occasion, headed nowhere fast if not for the intervention of his then-girlfriend, Lynne. I was also unaware that a central element of Cheney’s hegemonic takeover of Washington, D.C., as vice president involved the acquisition of political real estate: In addition to his office in the West Wing, he had two in the Senate, another in the House, one at the Pentagon, yet another with the CIA …
But the greater shame of McKay’s film is the degree to which it wastes Bale’s and Adams’s performances. Bale in particular vanishes completely into Cheney, especially as he ages into the chunky, bald-and-gray operator of his vice-presidential years. The slow, gravelly intonations, the crooked half-sneer—Bale nails every one. And Cheney’s scenes of tenderness with his family, and especially his lesbian daughter, Mary, are among the best of the film.