Photo Credits: The White House

Review: Vice

Vice is the latest offering from Adam McKay, creator of an array of cultural touchstones and cult hits such as Anchorman, Step Brothers, and The Big Short. Vice is the most overtly political film of the bunch, charting the inconspicuous rise of Dick Cheney from White House intern to secretary of defence and finally a notoriously powerful Vice President during the reign of George W. Bush. Alongside Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice’s sprawl of prizes throughout awards season has been the subject of much dismay, cited as an emblem of the widening gap between voters and critics. The reality, however, holds more nuance.

Whilst Vice proves to be less subtle or informative than The Big Short in its critiques of the establishment, the thesis built up throughout the film of a prime symbol of American white middle-class mediocrity rising through the ranks without anyone noticing or caring provides a more incisive condemnation of societal attitudes as a whole. In particular, a remarkably-edited final sequence presents what should be the end of an American dynasty, and uses a grisly metaphor to show how the establishment allows it to continue into perpetuity, literally stealing life and political freedoms from others. McKay also uses his comedic background to present an SNL-inflected ensemble including Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell to put darkly comedic spins on the absurdity of key political figures such as George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Here, their performances manage to elevate the script from cheap impressions to genuinely lived-in characterisations. More chilling is the slew of recognisable political figures name-checked during a deep dive into Cheney’s political empire, with the mere appearance of their faces serving as first-hand evidence that this empire is very much alive in America, and more powerful than ever.

The bold and brash nature of Vice is a key strength, but does serve to undermine the work at key points. Its one overarching theme – the continuing reign of mediocre warmongers – is perhaps too simplistic to justify the sheer number of stylistic quirks and storytelling techniques thrown about by McKay, and the didacticism prevalent throughout can come across as smug and classist, in particular through a poorly-judged mid-credits scene. Given the undeniable influence of McKay’s SNL tenure, questions must also be asked around the tendency for modern-day satire to perpetuate and habituate us to exactly the problem McKay is attempting to highlight.

Whilst unfairly grouped in the short-term with other awards-season movies which do contain genuinely objectionable stances, Vice’s saving grace in the long run may be as the defining piece on early 21st century right-wing American politics. Here, it does excel over The Big Short, with a message that we can still stop this from happening, as opposed to acting as a cautionary tale with respect to a unique event (the financial crisis). That Vice is daring enough to be angry and yet still pose several unanswerable questions (Can the public ever turn their heads enough to stop this? Should we prioritise political action over our daily lives?) is to its great credit, and sets it apart from its more favourably-viewed competitors this award season.

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