Sunday, February 24, 2019


(Other Best Picture Nominees considered so far: Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, BlackKkKlansmanThe FavouriteBohemian Rhapsody, and Green Book.)

Vice. Lively, politically astute, but a bit of a mess. In The Big Short, reformed funny-movie maker Adam McKay dramatized the fucking-over of the American economy, and amplified it with explanatory montages. Vice, about the fucking-over of America, is similar but with even more weight on the montages -- in fact, most of the historical characters are introduced mainly as pieces of the Brechtian educational filmstrip; for example, Frank Luntz has lines but no character; his main usefulness is as a living demonstration of how Republican propagandists used focus groups to not just sell policies but also poison the public discourse. Long passages are just tableaux or archival footage, cutting political events with clips of The Rifleman, Survivor, and Jane Fonda's Workout, seasoning history with zeitgeist.

You can see why Cheney looked like a great focal point for the story: He not only has a fat hand in every Republican outrage from Nixon through W, he also exemplifies the Republican success story: Be a total fuckup, get religion either figuratively or literally, latch onto some scumbags who respect your scumbaggery and scam your way to the top. The film suggests a similarity between the trajectories of youthful drunkards Cheney and George W., but also acknowledges the big difference: Unlike Bush Cheney is not even passably good with voters; he only shines among his fellow power jocks; as one of the film's many joke sequences underlines, his gift is to look serious and knowledgeable even when pitching total nonsense. In other words, he can bullshit the bullshitters, and he's not above hauling in an expert or two -- trained legal analysts, for example, with no excess of scruples -- to back his bullshit up.

The main problem with this approach is, Dick Cheney is not a tragic or a comic or even an anti-heroic figure -- he's just a piece of shit. Christian Bale dives to the center of the character and comes up with a believably not-too-bright guy who loves his family and finds a way to raise their standard of living by joining Today's GOP. This is a sensible explanation of the real Cheney's career, and Bale does it well -- but it has very little to do with the political lesson McKay's giving, other than to unnecessarily explain that amoral men make amoral movements. What would it mean if Cheney were a different person? What's the functional difference between Cheney and, say, fellow country-wrecker Donald Trump? After a while the Dick Cheney story diverges from the political story and, despite a half-hearted attempt to link some family drama to Republican hypocrisy (which could be yet another movie!), loses focus.

As Lynn Cheney, Amy Adams manages to spell out the personal frustrations that she displaces by feeding Dick's ambition without turning into a Lady Macbeth bitch-caricature (with a script that does her no favors), and Sam Rockwell does a good job of catching both W's weakness and charm. And I enjoyed all the cameos and special guest appearances, including Madea as Colin Powell. But the real doubles act, to me, is Bale's Cheney and Steven Carell's Donald Rumsfeld. There's a lot of student-exceeds-the-master in the relationship, and while Carell never makes the old bastard genuinely likable, there's some poignance in his profession of admiration from an abandoned office to the old friend who's just cut his throat. If we could strip away the superfluities, that's the part I'd keep.

That's it! In an hour or two, my predictions; then, showtime!

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