The Banality of Evil

Vice takes scattershot aim at the malevolent figure of Dick Cheney, and fails to hit its target

In the pantheon of true American baddies, Dick Cheney ranks right in the top tier — a man who gives Henry Kissinger a run for his money in the realm of sheer, unreconstructed villainy.

Cynical autocrat, war profiteer, torture advocate, shredder of constitutional protections and destroyer of democratic processes, former Vice-President Cheney hijacked the U.S. presidency from a blundering moron and, in the process, solidified executive powers to their current level of perpetual tyranny.

If Trump is fascism’s stooge, Cheney is its Machiavelli.

Beyond that, he just doesn’t seem like a very nice guy. Charming old Obama could wage endless wars and deport oodles of immigrants and elevate the surveillance state to its current pinnacle of Orwellian perfidy — and nobody cared; but Cheney, the real-life Mr. Smithers, remains one of our favorite assholes, a figure of unregenerate evil, easy to hate and hard to pin down — Iago in a pinstriped suit.

Given such savage qualifications, you’d think Cheney would make a tasty target for cinematic satire, along the lines of Kubrick’s wild and wooly Dr. Strangelove, or perhaps the subject of a depth portrait that envisions Persnickety Dick as a late-empire Citizen Kane, some darkly shrouded ghoul roaming the back channels of absolute power.

Instead, writer and director Adam McKay opts to … I don’t know what. Vice is a wretchedly bad movie: a confused biopic about Cheney that is at once artistically bankrupt and politically insipid. It comes across as something less than propaganda, a scattershot blast of rote outrage that swaps narrative coherence for a kaleidoscope of incriminations and implications that, ironically, collapse under the weight of absurdity.

Vice is infotainment for shrink-wrapped liberals. It’s torture porn for porcelain progressives. It’s a Bronx cheer in the basement of Dante’s Inferno.

If you took the worst tendencies of Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, blended them into a puree and threw it against the wall, the results would be more coherent and interesting than Vice, a movie that is somehow both tediously obvious and infuriatingly dull.

Christian Bale stars as Cheney, and much has been made of his remarkable transformation. Indeed, Bale is a dead-ringer for Cheney, right down to the bastard’s baritone growl and Svengali sneer. But his performance is more imitative than revelatory — a fantastic costume meant to wow and win awards, but ultimately forgettable.

Amy Adams plays his wife, Lynne Cheney, in a performance that adds nothing whatsoever to her career.

Sam Rockwell is great as George W. Bush. Sam Rockwell is always great. He’s the best thing about this movie.

So much for the good news. Whereas McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, exhibited a wild verve and insider smarts that covered its massive artistic deficiencies, Vice feels like the bitter end of an amphetamine jag, when everything’s abuzz but nothing is left, emotionally or intellectually.

Worse yet, it can’t find anything resembling a consistent tone. It veers from high farce to melodrama to mannered comedy to documentary footage of the Gulf War and 9/11, the last of which becomes assaultive and insulting as a rhetorical device meant to jolt us into awareness, exactly where the rest of the movie can’t.

And the whole thing is narrated in a ghostly way by a fictitious Gulf War vet (Jesse Plemons) whose heart is transplanted into Cheney after a fatal accident. It’s a didactic and juvenile conceit that feels like a last-minute corrective to a faulty script. I would rather have seen a movie about Cheney as an actual vampire. That would have been fun.

Instead, Vice is a movie that panders to our current Trump-rage to such an extent that it feels at once opportunistic and scapegoating — a blighted and remedial attempt to alert us to the corruption of our political system that reveals, instead, just how degraded our political acumen has become.

The most astonishing achievement of this film is that it takes an evil mofo like Cheney and, miraculously, at once overplays and undermines the actual evil he did, by willy-nilly heaping everything onto his back — all at the expense of clarity. It makes Dick at once more monstrous and less monstrous than he is, thereby neutering and nullifying his status as a real human being existing in history. I’m surprised the movie didn’t retroactively blame him for the Holocaust.

This, then, is where we’re at: an empty hollering about obviously vile people doing obviously vile things that forgoes all artistic, political and intellectual integrity in favor of a schizophrenic inventory of crimes and corruption. I suppose if you don’t already know that Dick Cheney is a terrible human being with blood on his hands, this movie might have something for you. And if you don’t want to believe it, this movie will impeccably reinforce how stupid and misguided we snowflakes are. Lose-lose.

But what I really suspect is that we’re now moving past the point of ideological possession into a twilight zone of expressive nihilism, where we all bask in the pre-ordained glow of our own pre-packaged despair. Pick your poison.

If that’s indeed the point, then Vice succeeds. It filled me with more despair than a Trump press conference.

Fake news, indeed.