Vice is not a comedy. It’s not a drama either. It has platypus-like qualities, so it’s probably best to describe it as a mash-up of a Michael Moore style documentary and a bumpy farce with a very talented cast. It’s bumpy because it not only jumps around in time, attributes real footage of carpet bombing to Cheney’s daydreams, and suddenly lets fake credits roll at half-time, but also because it’s almost as eclectic as Adam McKay’s earlier opus The Big Short. Consider the scene in which Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) recite from Macbeth in their bed. That’s funny, with an undercurrent of dread.
There is another moment where Cheney gives his older daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) permission to speak out against same-sex marriage on her campaign trail even though the younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) is gay, and the Cheneys have so far supported her as much as they had to not to seem cold and distant. Cheney risks a rift within his own family to ensure Liz’ political success. That is chilling, and not funny at all.
Vice also has its narrator, an average guy called Kurt (Jesse Plemons) with a family and a tour in one of Cheney’s theatres of war. His part is not as funny as the Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain cameos in The Big Short, but it will prove crucial towards the end of the movie. The Big Short worked as a comedy because it finds the outrageously funny aspects in the financial tragedy. Vice takes a bigger risk because it doesn’t go for obvious laughs, but for a kind of uneasy chuckle. The movie is a tonal mess, but it gracefully avoids going for cheap jokes. The one unexpected cameo is not for laughs, but for a chilling reminder that the fate of nations can be decided over a restaurant table: there is Alfred Molina as a waiter, rattling off the menu containing waterboarding, carpet-bombing and other genocidal treats, while Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and a few others sit there, their mouths watering. That is one of the best scenes because McKay gets the tone right.
What prevents Vice from being a huge success is that, at least for European audiences, it retreads ground that movies such as Oliver Stone’s W. or some of Michael Moore’s decumentaries have already covered. There is a saturation point of watching real-life megalomaniacs abusing global power. We get that in the daily news. Sitting in the Oval Office, Cheney explains that the U.S. does not use torture, period. So if the U.S. inflict physical or psychological pain on anyone in order to extract information, that cannot be torture, but must be something else, something called… let’s see… yes: enhanced interrogation. That moment does not really hit home because that line sounds like it has already been used in a Michael Moore doc. That Cheney finds the Geneva Convention “open ot interpretation” sounds like a corollary to that.
And yet I think that a farcical approach to Cheney’s career is the right path to take. There is a lot of tension between what the supposed wingman of the leader of the free world is supposed to do (spoiler: it has to do with keeping the peace), and what Cheney actually accomplished. His war crimes are so large-scale that a matter-of-fact biopic about him would feel stale and non-committal. The problem with portraying warmongers like him or Bush or Blair is that it gets exhausting to think about their guilt. It’s only possible to take in their crimes if there is an element of comic relief to it, event though their crimes are not funny in the least. If you absolutely have to make a movie about Cheney and his ilk, then this is the way to do it.