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Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Movie review: Vice, dir Adam McKay (2018)

Like most movies today this film is way too long at almost two-and-a-quarter hours and it was particularly bad in my case because I sat in a very cold theatre. Perhaps the cinema operators thought that turning up the aircon would give the movie an authentic American feel. Whatever the reason, when I got out of the building into the summer afternoon it was like entering an oven.

The casting was very good for this movie, with Christian Bale giving a strong performance as Dick Cheney, one that was matched by that of Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne. Sam Rockwell as George W Bush was masterful: the hooked nose must have been a prosthetic but the mouth and the way of talking was spot-on. The performance by Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld (Bush Jnr’s secretary of defense) was also strong.

It’s a Cinderella story at heart, showing how Cheney rose through the ranks in Washington starting out as an intern for Rumsfeld and how he made a career for himself in the administration of Reagan and then as the lower-house representative for Wyoming. His life was going very well at this point even though his daughter Mary had come out as gay. The director (who wrote the screenplay as well) runs a fake series of credits at this point to punctuate his drama (I’m not sure why people are using the word “comedy” to describe this film) but the scrolling names are interrupted when Cheney gets a call from someone on the Bush campaign asking if he will meet with the Texas governor. Which is where the fun really starts.

There are a number of “innovative” elements employed in this film to heighten the drama for the viewer and to maximise the impact of various scenes. The fake credits are one already mentioned. The scene where Cheney and Lynne are in bed and they start to recite lines from (what was presumably) ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare’s 1606 play, are however a complete dud. The actors may just as well have been talking in Swahili for all the sense it made when they spoke the words they used.

There are other quirky things that the director does in an effort to keep the thing running smoothly and to keep people from getting up and walking out of the cinema. One is to have an omniscient narrator who enters the story at a late stage in an unexpected role. This is an interesting ploy by the director that serves to give the story an overarching structure and to lend it some gravitas, especially in consideration of what happens to the narrator in the late stages of the story. A related theme is the heart, which pops up periodically for Cheney as he survives one myocardial infarction after another. Death stalks the halls of power and the matter of Cheney’s conscience (where his “heart” lies) is probed with a quantity of critical aplomb that borders however on cynicism. But in aggregate this is a functional film that doesn’t offer a much in the way of suspense and that relies for emotional highs on the story of Mary, Cheney’s and Lynne’s gay daughter. What happens to Mary is the real story, in my view.

I admit that I was fully prepared to hate this film, mostly because on the day I saw it I had gone to the cinema intending to see something else and had mixed up the screening dates. I would love to hear what other people think of it, and I’m particularly interested to learn more about whether people think the story is historically accurate. This seems to me to be a point that is critical for anyone who wants to rate the movie. Is it a success on its own terms or is it just a mediocre grab for attention, something aimed at achieving nothing more than getting awards so that the director can secure more work in future?

The theme of violence is striking. It stems from such things as the reckless use of cars and guns and reaches into the use of the US military overseas. There is something about US culture that idealises excessive violence, and this film does a good job of rendering this aspect of the culture in different parts of the story in various ways. But I wasn’t entirely convinced by the film’s “liberal” directorial position, and felt it was probably a mistake to give so much influence over the final product to one person. On the other hand the film worked perfectly fine in a structural and thematic sense. It made its points well enough and it told the story it had to convey in an appropriate fashion. But great art it certainly ain’t. Should do well at the Academy Awards.

Before watching the movie I had a bowl of chicken pho at a shop down the street and a bottle of Young Henry’s pale ale from the cinema bar. I had arrived early in order to be on-time for the movie I had planned to see.

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