Film review: Vice

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, January 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The new film Vice.

It’s supposedly about former Vice President Dick Cheney.

But actually it’s not.

Megan Basham is here now to tell you what it really is.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, a young, unfunny comedienne named Sally Weaver breaks into the big-time with an act called simply, “Jerry Seinfeld is the Devil.” There aren’t any jokes in Sally’s cable special in the sense of set up and payoff. She just mocks Jerry with juvenile impersonations that have almost nothing to do with the way he actually speaks, acts, or thinks. And she ends her set by saying, “That’s why Jerry Seinfeld is the devil.”

SEINFELD:It’s about me and this guy, Jerry Seinfeld, who I like to call “the devil.” Okay, okay. So, I run into this Jerry on the street and then he says to me, “Hey, Sally, you stink. You should give up acting.” Oh, I’m doing Jerry now, okay? So you have to imagine I have horns, a tail, and hooves instead of feet. You know what I mean? That guy?

Writer/director Adam McKay’s new movie Vice does the same thing. Only instead of Jerry Seinfeld, Dick Cheney is the devil.

LYNNE: I have to drag you out of that jail like a filthy hobo.

DICK: I’m sorry, Lynnie.

LYNNE: You’re sorry? Don’t call me Lynnie. You’re sorry. One time is I’m sorry. Two times makes me think that I’ve picked the wrong man. And now you’re just going to be a lush that hangs power lines for the state? Are you going to live in a trailer? Are we going to have 10 kids? Is that the plan?

DICK: Can we discuss this later?

LYNNE: Okay, here’s my plan. Either you stand up straight and you have the courage to become someone or I’m gone. I know a dozen guys and a few professors at school who would date me.

DICK: I love you, Lynne.

LYNNE: Then prove it.

Consider one of the first things McKay asks us to believe: That 28-year-old Cheney (played by Christian Bale), having earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s in political science, arrives in Washington not knowing whether he is a Republican or a Democrat. He only decides to sign up with a Republican congressman because he likes the profane, chauvinistic way Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carrell) addresses the incoming intern class.  

As if this by itself weren’t eye-roll worthy enough, we soon learn Cheney doesn’t even possess a basic understanding of the two parties’ respective philosophies. He later corners Rumsfeld, who is quickly becoming his mentor, to ask him what Republicans believe. After a beat, Rumsfeld bursts out laughing. The implication is that they believe in nothing but amassing power. That’s an agenda the young Richard Cheney can’t sign up for fast enough. Because he’s the devil, get it?

CHENEY: The vice presidency is mostly a symbolic job. However, the vice presidency is also defined by the president. And if we were to come to a different understanding. I got a sense that you’re a kinetic leader. You make decisions based on instinct.

BUSH: I am. People always said that.

CHENEY: Yeah, yeah. Very different from your father in that regard. Now, maybe I can handle some of the more mundane jobs: Overseeing the bureaucracy, managing military, energy, foreign policy.

BUSH: That sounds good.

Not one serious conservative the movie portrays, including Antonin Scalia, expresses a motive deeper or more thoughtful than a finger-tenting Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Why argue for the validity of enhanced interrogation techniques? Not because anyone actually believes they might yield information that would make Americans safer, but because they simply want the power to torture.

The movie imagines a ludicrous number of scenes that even a brief perusal of reputable sources would dispel. Is there really evidence Lynne Cheney’s father murdered her mother? No. Did Bush and Cheney really cook up the idea to initiate the Iraq War because a focus group conducted by Frank Luntz suggested it would goose their approval ratings? Only if they’re as eager as Newman was to believe whatever implausible anti-Jerry line Sally threw out.

Vice, rated R for the f-bombs Cheney and his cronies frequently drop, is trying to sell Pizza-Gate-level paranoia. As such, it should be shunned by any but the most notorious ranters in the fringiest corners of the web. Instead the Los Angeles Times calls it a “tonic for troubled times.” The Hollywood Reporter hails it as the best movie of the year. And it’s leading the count for Golden Globe nominations.  

As a bookend to the early, credulity-busting scenes, McKay ends with a montage that lays every recent national ill from heroin overdoses in the suburbs of Ohio to forest fires in California at Cheney’s feet. Never mind that Bush and Cheney were so respectful of the offices they held that they rarely responded to critics and certainly not in the infantile, insulting tones that have become commonplace today. Still, McKay blames the former vice president for the undignified state of our current political dialogue. And he does it while having a high time making jokes about Cheney’s multiple heart attacks and eventual transplant being a result of his heart being so dark (har har).

Vice is a screed that is no more illuminating or informative than a Stephen Colbert monologue or an SNL skit. It is nasty, graceless, self-congratulatory stuff. As such, look for it to keep racking up plenty of nominations this awards season.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Photo/Matt Kennedy, Annapurna Pictures 2018)

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