The case for Adam McKay’s Vice to win Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards…
by: Douglas Grant
Before 2015, many knew Adam McKay as a writer, producer, and director attached to big comedic brands such as Saturday Night Live, Eastbound and Down, and Drunk History. He would regularly collaborate with comedic talents such as Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Danny McBride, and Judd Apatow. His name is attached to a wide array of films, TV series, documentaries, TV specials, sketch comedy, and video shorts, all of them more or less comedic in nature. He brought us laughs with cult classics such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and comedy video websites such as Funny or Die. However, it was 2015’s The Big Short when McKay took his directorial and comedic talents in a new direction by using black comedy bordering on high drama to explore biographical themes addressing abuse of power, corruption, apathy, greed, and American capitalism at its absolute worst. He even uses black comedy to help the average citizen unpack the complicated details of what brought about the Great Recession of 2008, having actors such as Margot Robbie or Selena Gomez, playing themselves, break down the fourth wall to explain finance terms such as “Synthetic CDO.” He also has Ryan Gosling’s character, Jared Vennet, briefly deviate from history in his narration to explain how those individuals and banks responsible for bringing about the recession were — in a parallel universe — held accountable, before reminding us that in our real world these same people and banks escaped punishment for bringing the American economy to its knees. He soon thereafter produced the HBO series Succession, which also explores themes of corruption, entitlement, and capitalism run amok in its fictional depiction of the dysfunctional Roy family, who run one the biggest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world. McKay has begun to show us a new side of him, one that’s interested in more than just our laughs. He seems determined to tap into our collective moral outrage, making us cringe inwardly just as we are laughing outwardly. And he has done this once again with his latest film, Vice, an unflinching and scathing biographical rebuke of former vice president Dick Cheney.
We’ll get back to McKay in a moment, but first let’s talk about Christian Bale. In playing Dick Cheney, Bale gives audiences one of the best performances of his impressive career, undergoing yet another startling physical transformation by gaining over forty pounds to portray the former vice president, and scaling back the dynamic performance we’ve come to expect from him in favor of a more reserved, aloof approach. In this, Bale becomes unrecognizable, losing himself in a role that appropriately portrays one who is more of a silent observer, a patient schemer, a taciturn opportunist: “Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest… he strikes.” It would be arguable to claim that Bale, having played so many intriguing parts in his remarkable body of work, was born to play Dick Cheney. However, it would be safe to say that Vice might not have succeeded the way it has if it weren’t for Bale’s commanding film presence and dedication to his craft.
Now, back to McKay. Some of the cinematic devices the director uses in Vice will feel familiar to audiences, for they are similar to ones he employed in The Big Short. There’s the false ending at the film’s midway point, where, in the 1990s, an accomplished Cheney, retiring from politics, retreats indoors with his family as the credits prematurely begin to roll, implying a much different world if this particular historic trajectory had come to pass. There’s the Shakespearean exchange between Cheney and his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams at her best), the dialogue between his Macbeth and her Lady Macbeth a farce meant to humorously contrast with the reality of their reticent co-existence. The reveal of Jesse Plemons’s narrator (an Iraq war veteran) — who he was and what he meant to Cheney personally (his heart donor) — intentionally and ironically emphasizes the disconnect between the former vice president and the American citizens he was sworn to serve.
Vice, a movie spanning decades but giving specific attention to the early 2000s, is a history lesson that speaks to our current troubled times. It’s a droll but foreboding warning of what can happen when citizens allow their elected leaders to exercise their tremendous power unfettered from legal or moral consequence. It’s a cautionary tale about sleight of hand, but not just about a puppeteer pulling strings (Cheney) whose talent is getting everyone to focus their attention on the puppet (George W. Bush, aptly played by Sam Rockwell). It’s also about misdirection within the context of manufacturing a war based on a lie, and the people who lose their lives because of it. With little subtlety, Vice presents the catastrophic, globe-spanning ripple effect from the rash and self-interested decisions made by a select few, an inner elite, that would have damning worldwide consequences that are still felt today.
McKay is effective at tapping into our shared acrimony with the way Dick Cheney’s story is told in Vice. This is what the director does, and he does it well. But, true to form, he will make sure that we have some laughs along the way, for no film can sustain itself on high emotion alone, in this case the emotion being righteous indignation. No, we still go to the movies to have a good time, and even after Bale’s unapologetic Cheney turns and faces the audience at the end of the film, practically mocking us as he expresses no contrition whatsoever regarding his crimes against humanity, we still can leave the theatre with optimism. Because now we’re all paying attention, even if we weren’t before, and our public servants will be held accountable for their abuses of power, regardless of whether or not justice is actually served. This, in and of itself, is as good a reason as any to stay positive.