Inherent Vice: Adam McKay’s Vice struggles to find a message in muddling Biopic

In February of last year, I attended the AEI Eastern Policy Summit at the University of Virginia, which was a weekend filled with great speakers and fascinating discussion and debates. On the first night, Dick and Lynne Cheney came and talked about Lynne’s book on James Madison. I was shocked at their charm and camaraderie, as much of what I had heard about them in the past were passing mentions of disgust.

While I was alive during the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, I was simply too young to understand what was happening at the time. While I have read much about the war in following years, I still lack the feeling of actually experiencing it at the time. After watching the trailer for Vice, I hoped that it would be a great opportunity to reconcile my views on the Iraq War (a poorly executed and misguided affair) with the man I saw that night in Virginia (smart and charming).

Unfortunately, Adam McKay’s Vice fails on many fronts, lacking a clear message as well as an honest discussion about the events at hand. He is allowed to be critical of the Bush administration and Dick Cheney, but his aimlessness desire to paint these men as demonic and power-hungry derails this film’s potential. It is as if a drunk was given a megaphone and really wanted to tell you about Dick Cheney. There is a lot of noise, vitriol, and gimmicks, but nothing of genuine interest or importance. This leaves me wondering what the purpose of this film was, and why it was released.

If you have followed politics at all, there is nothing new that McKay offers, and he attempts to cover so much ground in this film its lack of focus shows. Jumping violently across the space-time continuum from early Wyoming to flat out conspiratorial accusations, from John Yoo helping justify torture, to a hypothetical chummy conversation between Cheney and Antonin Scalia about the Unitary Executive Privilege. Motivations are never really dealt with. Instead, these men just seem to want power for power’s sake. The “why” is consistently missing, causing much of these conversations to feel flat and unnecessary.

The film is also full of “are you still with me” gimmicks that are meant to be funny, but distract from the movie. Right when you think there is going to be a clear storyline, the characters recite Shakespearean verse, or the credits are intentionally rolled early. It’s exhausting.

There are great performances, to be fair. Christian Bale nails Cheney, but in terms of what his character has to say about the man’s character or his motivations is unclear. Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are good as well, but unfortunately, the director wastes their talents and energies. Lacking a clear and coherent message causes these characters to muddle through a film unsure of what it wants to say.

It is not hard to imagine Adam McKay thinking he was being incredibly clever throughout making this film. His constant fourth wall breaking eventually reveals who the narrator is, which left me wondering why they even bothered in the first place. As to why the narrator had a personal connection to Cheney is puzzling and the connection that is given is ridiculous, at best. This movie often seems to equate clever filmmaking with good historical commentary, and that simply is not the case.

One part of the film I found to be moderately enlightening was the story of Cheney’s daughter Mary and her struggle with homosexuality. I had not known that she was gay, and how Cheney dealt with this makes for some interesting moments, but it is not given enough time. Then, at the end, it is treated like the film’s cornerstone, even though it is among a myriad of things that could have been chosen. Frankly, I would have loved more discussion on this, and yet it is treated as an aside until it suddenly becomes the full focus.

There is absolutely room for a character study of Cheney or a dramatic film about the Iraq War, but this film cannot decide what it wants to be. Instead, it jumps through images and conspiracies that are neither revelatory nor insightful. If it really wanted to dive deep into what kind of man Cheney is, it should have focused on that. If it wanted to make an argument about Cheney’s impact on history it could have done that. Instead, it attempts to do all of those things and more and achieved none of them.

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About Noah Garfinkel

Noah Garfinkel was editor in chief of the Michigan Review.