Oscar-nominated film review: 'Vice'
Originally published at OU Daily Feb. 14, 2019
Oscar-nominated film “Vice” (2018) tells the tale of former vice president Dick Cheney and his quiet rise to power.
The film is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Adam McKay), Best Actor (Christian Bale), Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell, as President George W. Bush), Best Original Screenplay (Adam McKay), Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and Best Film Editing.
Directed by Adam McKay, “Vice” is a dark and comedic story told through the lens of a biographical documentary.
To source the content of the film, McKay said he researched thoroughly by reading every official document of Cheney’s that he could get his hands on, visiting Cheney’s small hometown of Casper, Wyoming, and holding off-the-record interviews.
The story begins in a safe room in Washington D.C., and an older Dick Cheney is shown responding to the 9/11 crisis with other leaders. Individuals ask him if they should call former President George W. Bush. Cheney is silent and makes an executive order to shoot down the 9/11 airplanes.
The following scene goes back to Nebraska, with a young and drunk Cheney receiving a DUI. After a stern talking-to from Lynne, Cheney begins to get his life together and finish college, lands an internship in Washington D.C. working for former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and eventually, makes it to his own political office.
“Vice” uses dark comedic tools, such as the use of alternate images flashing across the screen in conjunction with Cheney’s in-depth internal thought processes. Flashing scenes, such as fishing, individuals running and screaming and of a flower being crushed, display McKay’s perspective of what Cheney himself was feeling and thinking in those moments.
OU film and media studies professor Misha Nedeljkovich said “Vice” is classified as documentary fiction, or “docu-fiction,” as it highlights a historical narrative but presents it through a lens of cynicism and comedic interpretations of Cheney’s life and decisions.
The film uses several techniques that Nedeljkovich attributes to the device of smart cinema, including "dead man talking" and a non-linear narrative, he said.
"Dead man talking" is a tool used in film noir in which a dead person narrates the film. “Vice” is narrated by an unnamed dead man, who the audience learns to be Cheney’s heart donor toward the end of the film.
The film depicts Cheney in the hospital with a failing heart. He has moments left to live when the scene changes to a visual of the unnamed heart donor speaking directly to the audience in the moments before he is run over by a car. Another instance of alternate image is used to display a beating heart against a black screen, symbolizing the new heart Cheney receives from the transplant.
Smart cinema reflects cinematic techniques often found in independent and foreign films emerging in the Hollywood cinematic sphere that had previously not been found in mainstream blockbuster films, Nedeljkovich said in a statement to The Daily.
Nedeljkovich said “Vice” employs techniques that make it a contemporary American smart cinema film.
“(Smart cinema techniques) are the tools of a smart director,” Nedeljkovich said. “The film is definitely (a) very good film. The question ... is this a bad guy (or) is this a good guy ... It’s not part of cinema. Cinema is social impact.”
The film also employs a false narrative to emphasize the impact a single decision Cheney made to return to politics would have on his family, his health and ultimately, the future of American politics.
The film shows Cheney’s daughter, Mary, coming out to him and Lynne as a lesbian and details what their lives would have looked like if Cheney had chosen to withdraw from politics and the potential harm it could have on Mary’s life through the spotlight of conservative politics.
The scene depicts Cheney leaving politics for good and never struggling with heart issues again, laughing along with his large, happy family and dog.
Bale’s portrayal of Cheney is chilling through distinctive body language and stares, displaying Cheney as a power-hungry silent mastermind.
The film displays the destruction of Cheney’s relationship with Mary when his other daughter, Elizabeth, enters a Republican congressional race and outs her sister as a lesbian and states that she does not agree with her lifestyle or gay marriage.
A following scene depicts Cheney alone in his new office in the White House. Darkness covers his face as he stares into it. The scene flashes back to him sitting in his first office, talking to Lynne and baby Mary on the phone.
The parallel of these two scenes depict his first instincts of reaching to a position of power. The flashback illuminates him as a father and husband who calls Lynne to tell her that he has made it because of her. In the darkened office scene, Cheney breathes in and out slowly, a silhouette of a man. He has reached the culmination of power, and he is alone.
This scene flashes back between the two pivotal moments in Cheney’s evolution. McKay’s parallel between two simple moments shows the audience the expansive journey they have seen take place and the depths that a hunger for power can take a person.
The film ends by returning to the first scene — Cheney and other leaders in a safe room dealing with the destruction of 9/11. Cheney is depicted as having all the power and responsibility of Bush. In the aftermath of his catastrophic decisions, Cheney breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera in an interview.
“I will not apologize for keeping your family safe and I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done,” he says as the camera closes in on his grim, smiling face.
Throughout the film, Cheney was one of few words. Through this scene, Cheney finally addresses those he has harmed, illuminating the audience, as well as the American people, the content of his heart and mind. This directorial choice is brilliant and a compelling use of smart cinema techniques McKay used in his previous film “The Big Short.”
Cheney’s direct stare is chilling and emphasizes a complete lack of remorse and the ultimate thirst for power that this film is predicated upon. “Vice” is a brilliant piece of cinematic reflection on American history and the illusive enigma that is Dick Cheney.