We need to talk about Vice – and how we have no idea what’s going on

Months – maybe even a year – after staring in awe at the photos of how much weight Christian Bale put on to play Dick Cheney, out comes Vice. The semi-biopic of George W. Bush’s vice president, this film is the second outing Adam McKay’s new, politically-driven style of filmmaking after 2015’s The Big Short.

When you think about McKay as the director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights and The Other Guys, it’s kind of hard to reconcile that against his role as the director of Vice. It’s Adam McKay 2.0, if you will.

Like lots of people, I really enjoyed The Big Short. And I really appreciated what McKay was doing with the filmmaking style but I didn’t feel as though its presentation quite worked for the narrative. It was by its nature a pretty complex story and telling it in a complex way didn’t quite click with me. Read into that what you will…

But Vice, on the other hand was the complete opposite. Adam McKay 2.0’s style of off-beat comedic moments and visual choices is a great marriage to Cheney’s story. He’s a complex person that worked outside of the public eye when possible. So rolling his story into McKay’s new form of filmmaking works perfectly.

Running this film is a cast of brilliant performances led by Bale’s Cheney. Amy Adams does a bang-up job of lighting a fire in Lynne Cheney that burns throughout. And add to that Steve Carell who’s able to make you hate his portrayal of Donald Rumsfeld as much as you like him and Sam Rockwell who’s expectedly brilliant as George dubya himself.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush

Because he was famously private, not much is known about the inner-workings of Cheney’s personal life. And instead of just unapologetically making stuff up, Vice plays with this idea in a very McKay kind of way – driven by one of the most successful examples of narration I’ve ever seen. On top of that, Vice’s direct-to-camera addresses and a brilliantly-executed shakespearean dialogue are put in place to make sure everyone knows that the filmmakers weren’t sure how Cheney got from A to C. Instead they just tell us bluntly that they’ve just assumed that he went through B.

But much more than that, Vice leans so far into Cheney’s secretive nature and the way that he worked behind the scenes in the White House. The clever quips and unbelievable nature of the man aside, Vice is a story about how politics works and how using the system can allow the smartest of people to put themselves into positions of power. This film makes sure that everyone knows that while we were all laughing at the funny things George W. Bush said during his time in office, Cheney was behind the scenes running things. And by all accounts, he doing a pretty brutal job of it.

As a Brit who was at secondary school when he was in office, I can’t say I previously knew too much about Cheney – other than the fact he was generally quite disliked and that he accidentally shot someone while out hunting. But if Christian Bale’s performance is anything close to the man himself, it’s not surprising that he was a) so successful at putting himself in the position he did and b) left office with an approval rating of just 13% with the American public.

What the film also does is makes sure that the audience is aware that it’s made by a director who isn’t the biggest fan of Cheney and things like the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used by the US during the Bush administration’s war on terror. This is well and truly brought home at one point in the film where after five minutes or so, you feel as though you’re watching a documentary. And not a jolly one.

Dick Cheney is known as the most powerful vice president of the US in history and left office with a 13% approval rating

This is a really interesting thing for McKay to do. Because he’s using his platform to tell everyone – in a very meta way – what he thinks about a governmental administration, their politics and to a certain extend, a whole school of thought. And he does this in a way that’s not dissimilar to how Cheney used the political system that he was a part of to exert his politics and power however he wanted.  

Because when we talk about Vice – we need to talk about how we have no idea what the hell is going on.

This is a biopic. A film about one person and their journey – absolutely. But moreso, it’s the story of how politicians can operate within their respective systems. And if they so wish,  they’re able to do this to an extent that lets them gain power and surround themselves with people that let them execute that power, without question.

And it made me think that as much as us common people on the street might think we’re in the know about what’s going on inside our country’s politics, we don’t. We have no idea. None. Zip, zilch, nada.

While Vice presents this in the context of the US political system, it’s no different anywhere else. The recent Brexit: The Uncivil War on Channel 4 in the UK presented a comparison in British politics where one person used the system to weave their own narrative, one that had a huge impact on a public referendum.

In each of these systems, and in others all over the world, there are people whose job it is to play a game. It might be their job to persuade others within the system, or persuade the public or the media. And whatever their end-goal, some of these people win at their games and some people lose.

As members of the public, we’re largely unaware of what’s going on at any level of that game. We’re simply being shown what politicians think we need to see to make a choice and mark our small crosses on a ballot sheet.

But that’s not the same as saying that we shouldn’t continue to stay informed and use our voices. In the last five years or so, I’ve made a point more than ever to feel as though I know what I’m voting for. Because the public can – and does – create change.

Because while Vice really made me think that behind the closed doors of Westminster or the White House or the Reichstag, there are things going on that the public will never know about, it also made me think maybe that’s okay.  

Just because there’s a game going on that we don’t understand the rules of, it doesn’t mean we’re always going to lose. In many professions, there are politics that have to be navigated in order to progress. It’s just that within the political context, the outcome has more of a direct impact on us. And being unaware of it doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Voting in the ‘right’ politicians for whatever our personal politics are means selecting someone who has the best intention for the people following them.

But we also need to be aware that we should choose someone who knows how to play the game too, because that’s part of the system. And only by working within that system can change be affected.

So, next time you’re asked to vote on something, remember – there are many more things going on that you don’t know about. But that doesn’t matter if you do your reading, spend some time researching the topic and the candidates. That way, we should still be able to make the most informed decision possible.

Now enough of that. I’m just off to check what’s going on in politics recently. Can’t be much…

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