Vice ★★★

I have a filmmaking philosophy which I'm going to dub 'the newspaper principle'. This principle states that some auteurs require a person stood behind them at all times, carrying a rolled-up newspaper, and ready to smack them on the back of the head whenever they have a dumb idea. I have this philosophy because some very talented filmmakers make some very bad decisions which let down otherwise great films. Adam McKay is one such filmmaker. With The Big Short the metaphorical newspaper man seems to have been present in the form of additional writers and collaborators, but with Vice McKay seems unrestrained and his film falls apart because nothing tones down Vice's high energy lecturing.

I loved The Big Short and so seeing Vice left so unfinished makes me disappointed. Every scene in Vice feels like an afterthought, with nothing fleshed out because it's all fast-paced and edited ridiculously, allowing nothing to linger before a random cutaway to archive footage or a freeze frame. The Big Short used similar techniques in service of applying a cultural statement to its economics, but here it seems lost amidst political dealings, especially as the frantic editing is ramped up further. Covering a few years of cultural shift is one thing, but applying it to a film that covers six decades makes for a rushed product.

Unquestionably Vice tries to cover too much. It takes ages to get to the Iraq War, the heart of the film, and then glosses over so many details when it finally gets there. More depressingly, the film never uncovers the motives for Cheney's actions. It hints at them, and I could sure have a good guess, but Vice never gets beneath the documented list of events. It tells us what happened, not why. I would have loved this as a documentary, covering all these facts, averse to actors smirking and attempts to evoke an era, and just able to speculate from many angles.

There's a debate in my mind as to whether McKay is a leftist or a liberal. The Big Short was so widely critical of the status quo that it hardly feels the work of a diehard liberal / centrist. Yet Vice is distinctly partisan, even if it does show footage of Hillary Clinton supporting the Iraq War. A mid-credits scene defending liberal bias seems particularly designed to exonerate the mainstream media in the era of Trump. Where was the man with the rolled-up newspaper? What's worse is a muddled approach to whether Cheney was right. Cheney breaks the fourth wall to defend the Iraq War as a necessity no one wants to admit, and given the film doesn't contradict him, why is McKay so against him? Facts are facts, Cheney was a republican who did things widely regarded as terrible, the Iraq War being one of the worst. But there's a difference between a well considered agenda and just being incoherent. Vice shows Cheney for the terrible person he was, and yet by just seeing him as a mythical evil enabled by Republicans, it's hard to pin down quite what McKay's vision of a functioning world should be.

Vice starts off obnoxious and misjudged, and then slowly finds it feet. Unfortunately, whilst I can get behind a lot of McKay's exploration of Dick Cheney, he leaves a lot lacking, which is disappointing after the carefully considered The Big Short. Vice isn't a bad film, but it's absolutely a mess that lacks focus.

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