Movie Review: VICE: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, but there’s nothin’ aplenty

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Vice, Adam McKay’s interpretation of Dick Cheney’s reign of terror, comes to a false ending in the middle of his film. The music rises to a mock triumphant crescendo, and credits roll over a montage of happy family scenes in which the actors we have seen portray the infamous Dick (Christian Bale) and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) luxuriate in the lap of domestic affluence as they cavort with children and dogs. The credits are the actual credits of Vice, but prematurely displayed.

The faux closure falsely celebrates the Cheneys’ permanent exit from politics when, after Carter’s win as president and the loss of Gerald Ford, Cheney’s prospects for running for and winning high political office began to seem impossible. What? It’s a tease. The movie isn’t ending; rather it winks at us about how stories work, and continues on to document the most destructive period of Cheney’s political life.

It’s a mysterious rhetorical move by McKay. But it isn’t the only one, and it isn’t the first one.

Vice is a film about Dick Cheney and his partner in crime Lynne, to be sure, but it’s also about the way we talk about history, how we know what we know, how we fill in the gaps in our partial knowledge with our own fictions, and who has a voice in creating historical narratives.

When the film begins, McKay all but directly outlines his purposes. We are told the film is a true story, that catnip for American audiences. Then come the qualifications. The filmmakers confess that they often ran into problems because of a lack of information, since Cheney was extremely secretive, the most secretive man in American history. “But,” says the legend on the screen,”we did our fucking best.”

Did you read any reviews saying that McKay was challenging our ability to make bio-pics about a person who has refused to let himself be known? Or maybe challenging our ability to make bio-pics at all? No, me neither. And I can’t help wondering why. McKay is pretty up front about that. It’s the first thing he tells the audience.

Adam McKay on VICE set

What follows is a chronicle, radically fragmented and discontinuous, about how Cheney went from being a dissolute young drunk to being a proto-Fascist old politician, who increasingly attached himself to the theory of the unitary executive, a belief that the Constitution grants unlimited power to the President. Along the way, we are offered lessons in the definition of this ultra right rationale on the basis of which Bill Clinton sought to expand the powers of the President and Dick Cheney sought to make himself a virtual tyrant. And we watch Cheney apply the theory, using the legal doctrines evolved by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacobs and Sam Massaro, as old and young Scalia, respectively), John Yoo (Paul Yoo), and David Addington (Don McManus) to justify lying, torture, a presidency above the law, and a vice presidency exempt from the oversight made possible by governmental checks and balances. It is certainly a boon to the American public to be reminded of the known facts, available if we check the newspapers of that period. But a refresher course about how anti-democratic Cheney was in his hey-day does not a movie make.

It’s what we didn’t, couldn’t, and will never see that is the driving force of McKay’s storytelling and the most original aspect of his work. To emphasize that, McKay reminds us often of what his film cannot capture when he shatters a broad spectrum of bio-pic conventions. He ruptures the time line to keep us from sinking into an easy narrative continuity. He creates that faux ending of which I spoke above. He also cuts to black repeatedly creating mini anti-continuity shocks. Even more innovatively, he creates a voiceover narration that teases us with its anonymity, and he resorts to grotesquely comic interludes that break the tone of the film, which is basically realistic, despite the chronological spasms. The most grotesque and intriguing among these is an almost nauseating scene of Dick and Lynne in bed in which the two of them arrive at his decision to be George W. Bush’s running mate. (Cheney sex! What a concept!)

We hear from the unidentified voiceover almost immediately. The first thing McKay does is to juxtapose scenes of Cheney in 1963, a howling drunk pulled over by the police as a young man. and scenes of an older Cheney as vice-president in the government security bunker in 2001, after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

And suddenly there’s a voice. Whose is it? It’s a nice, soft spoken American voice and it suggests that in the security bunker Cheney became a ghost who would tyrannize the United States virtually unseen. We are being introduced to McKay’s theme about what we see and what we don’t see. The incomprehensible Cheney and his Lynne provide plenty of visible spectacle: she as a woman obsessed with her husband as the vehicle through which she expects to make her mark since women can’t do it directly; he as an evolving crooked mouthed liar who does it all for his lady fair. As time goes by, Cheney turns into a political operative who comes to care more and more for power stripped of integrity and a democratic concept of limits, and Lynne grows ever more implacable in her lust to experience his control vicariously as “the sheriff’s girl.”

But we are also confronting an invisible entity. Who is this voiceover making such a sweeping analysis? Is it merely a conventional omniscient narrator? Or is there more to it? That mystery persists and grows, although the voice acquires a name, and a visible body and family. First we learn the voice is named Kurt. Then we see him embodied, a blonde son of the west, a standard issue family man, or so it would seem. He teases us. Don’t we wonder how he knows so much about Cheney? And he postpones his answer. Later he breaks the fourth wall, when he tells his little boy he has to explain things to the “people”–us. Is all as it seems regarding this nice, low key extremely insightful, very well informed American working man? Appearances to the contrary, Kurt never becomes realistic.

Jesse Plemons, the Voice in VICE

So the story continues in fits and starts. And then we come to the moment when George W. Bush asks Cheney to be his Vice Presidential running mate, a decision that will change history. And how does McKay choose to visualize it? Cue Kurt. This is a part of the story that is both profoundly important and impossible to document, as Kurt tells us. He also says that there is no Shakespearean soliloquy that would reveal all the inner workings of the Cheney brain and heart, or what happened between Dick and Lynne as the decision was being made. And then McKay cuts to Dick and Lynn in bed spouting pseudo-poetic nonsense, as if it were a Shakespearean duet. Is this McKay doing his “fucking best” with unknowable moments?

Yes, it is. Kurt frames the strange scene of this couple, who are among the least poetic souls in the universe, spouting ersatz poetry. This is not your father’s, or anyone’s, Shakespeare. It’s what you get when, as Kurt tells us, we are in the realm of the unknowable–Dick and Lynne, imitating soaring Shakespearean cadences while speaking gibberish. Try this on for size. Cheney says to Lynn, “A mere treaty is our union. Thou shared thy tortoise flame with mine, revealing hawes and spires.” What’s a tortoise flame? What’s the relationship between hawes and spires? In fact, what’s a hawe? A little online research reveals that “tortoise flame” is the name of a Harley guitar, and that there is a woman named Jane Hawes who was born Jane Spires. Full disclosure I have invented the spelling of “hawes” because I couldn’t do anything else. The eruption of banal, absurd “poetics,” like the word “hawes” jumps into a vacuum, and fills the gap with the feeling of absurdity and inevitablity that went into the making of this decision,. This parody of Lord and Lady Macbeth is a patent set of non-sequiturs that suggests the sound and fury signifying nothing that is this couple. It made me jump into the vacuum with my spelling. And it made me think about what I was up to by doing that. When Kurt introduces this extremely high comedy, he functions as McKay’s warning that what we are about to see in the world’s most revolting sex scene is not documentary truth. And yet it is a form of truth. How else to dramatize the grotesque nature of the Cheney goals, lacking all access to documentary information about the dark comedy of their grandiosity? Brilliant.

But Kurt has more to offer McKay’s audience. After we go through Cheney’s despicable and deceptive machinations to get the United States into war with Iraq, the other shoe drops. Kurt, our voiceover, is dead and has been from the first moment of this recounting of events that took place long ago. We only gain this knowledge as the film is heading toward its denouement when we watch him hit by a car while he is jogging. Dead man, still viable heart. This is the man whose good, working, young heart was transplanted into Cheney when his own defective, never good heart (metaphor alert) can no longer function. McKay pointedly even shows us an image of the discarded blackened and ugly heart Cheney was born with. Kurt is, then, a fiction of an intelligence that can know Cheney from the inside out, but who still is unable to definitively fill in the blanks. He is a device for conveying what lies beyond our ability to grasp it all about human motivation even if we could place a camera/recording device within a human sensibility. They say that winners get to write history; here that’s not the case. Kurt is and is not Cheney. He is and is not a winner. And does and does not tell us everything. History is a melange of fact and fiction. Brilliant.

Alison Pill in VICE

We see that Kurt despises Cheney and is an unwilling collaborator in giving him a new lease on life, especially when it gives Cheney time to undo the one decent act we have witnessed him perform, the defense of his gay daughter, Mary (Allison Pill).

Lily Rabe in VICE

Where before Cheney had refused to publicly reject gay marriage and refused to talk about Mary’s private life except in terms of his love for her, his new heart from a decent man ironically gives Cheney the energy to grant his rapacious, heterosexual daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) permission to attack gay marriage in order to gain political traction in Wyoming as she runs for the Senate. Cheney is desperate for her to reclaim the political power he has lost with the end of Dubya’s presidency.

Once again, fiction fills in the gaps, here Kurt as the unknowable dead man talking. Like a number of current documentary filmmakers, notably the wonderful Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, McKay is keenly aware of the limits of what can be rendered of journalistic truth in film. He is aware of the need to use both fiction and documentary in getting near to truth. Jia told me himself of his belief, which is also patently visible in his films. I have never spoken with McKay, but he tells us all that he thinks so too, when he uses Kurt, disruptions of his chronology, and blatant fictions like the “Shakespearean” bedroom scene, to speak when he is at a loss. He similarly uses many visual metaphors, including a running reference to fishing which comes to stand as a figurative way of representing Cheney’s literal shrewd “baiting of his hook’ with what the person he wants to manipulate desires as a means of bending that person to his will.

Adam McKay on VICE set

The upshot is that McKay’s emphasis on the limits of human knowledge render particularly heinous and appalling the final scenes of the film in which Cheney is interviewed by Martha Radditz and in which, after the credits roll, a focus group talks about Republican policies. In both instances, rigidity of thought based on a misbegotten belief in total knowledge of the big picture characterize Cheney and a bilious ultra right wing man in the focus group. During the interview, Cheney paints a definitive picture of how he fought “the enemy” to keep us all safe as a justification for every horrible thing he has done. Well, we have just seen him lie about Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and the World Trade Center attack. But he comes out verbally punching as he tells Radditz he will not apologize for safeguarding America, doing what, as Cheney bombastically insists, is what we asked him to do. It is the ultimate in deception, as the film would have it, leaving open the question of whether Cheney’s intended audience is the only victim of the fraudulence. Is Cheney also bamboozling himself, or is this pure performance? Then a new version of the final credits roll, in which the names are accompanied with spectacular images of fishing lures. (The fishing metaphor pays off.) But it is still not the end of the film. We cut to a focus group in which an ultra right wing, macho bully in the focus group—Cheney writ small–proceeding from pure spleen, comes out punching, literally, when a more thoughtful group member wants to talk in terms of facts. And then the final credits actually do roll.

The “vice” of the title is a triple entendre; it refers to the office of vice-president, the vice of Cheney’s policies, and the vice of grandiosely proclaiming absolute truth. It is a lesson in humility taught through a vision of arrogance, and it is not just about time gone by. There is no actual resolution to the film because the vices of arrogance and grandiosity in American politics that make us unable to think clearly, to approach truth in all its many aspects is ongoing today. De te fabula wrote the ancient poet and essayist Horace at the end of his stories. The story is about you. And we would each do well not to identify purely with the voice of Kurt and all the other voices of reason that are quashed by Cheney’s big lies. De te fabula.

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