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Cheap Thrills in the Blackout Zone

Schlock and awe in Adam McKay’s Vice

I remember the start of the Iraq War as a moment now. Was it ever anything else? The night when the cruise missiles were delivered to us by way of a government feed, grainy ribbons of light cut into a foreign sky. This was, I suppose, its intended purpose: the birth of an “awesome” moment intended to travel across the borders of time and memory. The shared cultural event. We stood upright in a living room to welcome it, suspended by it. Despite our pre-HD television set, this act of “retaliation” exacerbated our senses as our regularly scheduled programming paused for a moment of empire-making in the primetime slot. We’d resume the normal order of things moments later, but not before the missiles found their first targets. The so-called shock of it all—of course, we know who that was reserved for. Remembering it now, it’s clear to me the awe inspired by the spectacle was meticulously designed.

Watching Vice, Adam Mckay’s latest episode in what’s been called his “American destruction trilogy,” it’s also clear that awe and its appreciation are irrepressible American urges. Or, simply irresistible to avoid indulging—if you’re someone like McKay. The comedic writer and director has gone sociopolitical, dedicating himself to narrating American decline, as he did most recently in The Big Short, a “hyperlinked” romp through the housing meltdown of 2008. His latest chimera of satire and social politics is offered to us in an act of misdirection. First, as a biopic tracking the rise of Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney, embodied by a hearty Christian Bale. Second, as a true untold story seen from inside the “blackout zone” of Cheney’s office (as Joan Didion once classified it in the New York Review of Books), home to one of our most influential and least transparent political power brokers. But where McKay intended to build a sprawling rebuke to Cheney, he’s instead created a well-intentioned homage to power itself. As the film’s credits rolled to West Side Story’s brassy “America,” I didn’t find myself asking how Cheney got away with it all, but something else entirely: is susceptibility to awe, or awe itself, among the greatest of American vices?

“Wonder was the grace of the country,” George Trow wrote in 1981’s Within the Context of No-Context, a pamphlet on America’s psyche in the age of television. “Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. . . . Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?” Apparently so, if you have auteur-sized ambitions and a $60 million budget. Before the first frame, McKay knew he was making “the most challenging, ambitious movie” of his career, as he told the New York Times Magazine. “The movie,” he makes clear, “was big.” How else to portray the size of Cheney’s con, which spanned fifty to sixty years, from Wyoming to D.C. to Texas and Iraq, from the floor of the House of Representatives to the floor of the Oval Office? One that counts four presidential administrations and five cardiac arrests. (“We left a heart attack on the cutting room floor,” McKay told Deadline.) How else to tell such an American story? Or, in McKay’s opinion, the definitive story. Try some wonder, try some awe, try some facial prosthetics. “The story of America,” he clarified to Vanity Fair, “is [Cheney’s] story.”

Where McKay intended to build a sprawling rebuke to Cheney, he’s instead created a well-intentioned homage to power itself.

But is this our story? Or just a tale recapitulated for McKay’s myopic carnival? He’s eerily, perhaps overwhelmingly, fastidious with certain details in telling it. Bale’s Cheney, for one. Transformed under the weight of an additional forty-five pounds and a makeup job that allegedly demanded six months to perfect, the British actor is wholly incognito. So much so, that in his wooden bravura one senses McKay’s on-screen interventions—like Jesse Plemons’s Vox-esque voice-over or the film’s flash card frames (we are told Donald Rumsfeld, played by an impish Steve Carrell, demanded that his subordinates “BE LOYAL”)—were less stylistic flair than necessary tools to keep things moving along. The sense of bureaucracy here becomes almost literal: McKay takes a preening delight in attending to its every detail. “Is there a word in the English language that is more boring than bureaucracy?” he asked in a Vanity Fair interview. So, off he goes, racing to explicate unitary executive theory, Grover Norquist’s regressive tax ideology, Cheney’s strategic staffing of the Bush White House, even John Yoo’s torture memo (served to us on a literal menu).

I can’t say, after a pair of viewings, if these details were meant to reverse-shock me into some kind of mental clarity about our national saga, but the agitation caused by the Bush administration’s legendary imprudence becomes McKay’s own device across the film. Take, for example, McKay’s attempt at cinematic realpolitik. In one scene, Cheney, now Vice President, greenlights the kidnapping of a “suspected” terrorist, and McKay obliges the request, cutting to a scene of the suspect quickly being bound, stripped, and placed into a diaper as he undergoes “extraordinary rendition.” The sequence still comes across as apolitical and morally ambiguous. I’m grateful that McKay assumes a level of moral intelligence in his viewers (contrary to some reviews), but this assumption doesn’t help inject any nuance into the images—it instead creates a vacuum. What rushes to fill the void, as the sequence gives way to Cheney having finished a breakfast Danish, is a haunting sense of one man’s nonchalance with regard to his own capacities—this goes for McKay as well.

Consider, too, that no one has truly seen this story or glimpsed what happened behind closed doors. American directors are infatuated by this fantasy. In Oliver Stone’s 2008 Bush administration takedown, W., Cheney (played by Richard Dreyfuss) grins as he carves up Iraqi oil fields for Big Oil in a closed-door session of the cabinet. It’s not surprising that McKay’s own dramatization of Cheney story would be just as bizarrely giddy about power. “That’s the kind of power that this crappy little building holds,” Representative Rumsfeld explains to Cheney (presented as his naive charge in Vice) as the talk outside of a closed-door meeting between Nixon and Kissinger in the White House. It’s the kind of power that can incinerate a Cambodian village, as McKay shows us a beat later. Lives somewhere around the globe will change because of this meeting, Rumsfeld explains with a grin, dumbstruck at his own luck to be in proximity to the source.

Perhaps an explanation for McKay’s fixation with power can be found in our larger cultural trance with regard to the palace intrigue taking place in Trump’s Oval Office. So corrupting is power, the unadulterated American variety, that even good faith attempts at analyzing it rarely transcend the affective derangements of entertainment. Vice makes its own attempts to expose this corrosiveness—how power can cut cultural wormholes through our political discourse. We now deal with a media environment where reporting on Trump’s mood is passed off as political journalism, as meeting darkness with light—it’s blockbuster journalism with Star Wars-level nuance. In this degraded context, a feature-length testimonial about one bad man’s pursuit of power is being passed off as a searing indictment.

Inadvertently and indirectly, McKay confessed as much to Variety. “Power screws you up. It’s the biggest drug there is. There’s nothing better than power: money, sex, anything you can think of, power is the one.” And in settling on Cheney, Mr. “Blackout Zone,” the architect of powerful moments, “the grandmaster,” the irresistible cipher, McKay found the perfect drug. “I kept thinking there would be some point where he made a mistake,” McKay explained to Rolling Stone after his deep dive into Cheney’s lifetime of interviews. “There’s no crack in his game. It made him even more interesting.” Cheney, the man who oversaw his own shadow government—a set of doors behind a set of doors—as McKay told The Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney was the safe-cracker, the professional you brought in who knew all the ins and outs of our government.”

It proves irresistible for McKay, who proceeds to build a film of glances—around corners, behind the thick doors of the White House, to Cheney’s office as his team intercepts the president’s intelligence briefings. We’re at the situation room’s conference table in the touch-and-go minutes following the attacks of 9/11, wherein Cheney gives the command, in President Bush’s name, to shoot down any threatening planes in the sky, regardless of their civilian cargo. We follow Cheney into his “undisclosed locations,” track alongside him and Lynne as they’re carted into bunkers. Late in the film, we’re even shown the gaping maw of his chest cavity, the camera slowing tracking into it and revealing, surprise, nothing.

McKay is conscious of the humans sitting in the theater and is desperate to inform, shock, and radicalize them.

McKay’s preoccupation with opening this black box undercuts the film’s flashes of genuine politics. He connects the dots between, for example, pollster Frank Luntz’s fine-tuning of Bush Administration talking points and the attempt to manipulate public opinion of the Iraq War. Every historical assertion is presented with the loudness of a book jacket blurb nodding to the robustness of McKay’s acumen. His postscripts tally the wreckage of the Bush Administration and the side effects which linger on to this day, from American and Iraqi lives lost in the war, to the continued toll of veteran suicide on our own soil, to the emails Cheney’s office never kept, to the sheer amount of treasure extracted from the Iraqi oil fields for American profit. The size of the con was staggering. We should be rightfully enraged by its vastness. And McKay deserves his gold star for dropping such unpleasant truths into a mainstream studio film. But in its full context, much of this is emotional manipulation masquerading as explainer journalism. Like the pollsters in the film, McKay is a fan of using focus-groups when developing his films for bigger laughs and larger emotional responses.

“You don’t catch flies with vinegar,” Constantine Costa-Gavras once said of his directing style. The Greek filmmaker, instead, coated his radically political films with honey. Wit, charm, and a pop sensibility course through Z (1969) and State of Siege (1972), cautionary tales of the revolutionary left that made a lasting impression on the mass audiences of their time. McKay’s Vice draws from the same adage with equally grand aspirations—to change the flow of mainstream political attitudes with sweet enticements and, if needed, penis jokes. Yet for all the talk of the film’s “glib” tendencies, its inability to sustain a “coherent mood,” making it no more than a meal of “table scraps,” McKay’s restless style is a political act: he foregoes the prospect of humanity in power throughout the duration of the film (with the exception of stereotyped middle-Americans in the focus-group scenes and scenes with Cheney’s daughters, Lynne and Mary). But he’s also conscious of the humans sitting in the theater and is desperate to inform, shock, and radicalize them. The breaking of the fourth wall, as Bale’s Cheney does at the end of the film, amounts to a dark and cheap coda. It’s also likely to penetrate the minds of viewers in a way that fact-checks and biographical deep dives could only hope.

Some critics have taken his approach personally, particularly the way McKay seemingly talks to the viewer like he’s, well, “a fucking moron,” as one reviewer at Slate complained. Never mind that in March of 2003, 73 percent of Americans considered a war on Iraq to be the “right decision.” (Cheney’s own polls from that same time showed that 61 percent of country considered him favorably.) Meanwhile, the serious political minds at The Atlantic and the New York Review of Books found Vice’s “goofy gimmicks” to preclude the “somber” treatment of Cheney’s life and times that we all need—never mind what exactly that would do for our understanding of his life or his intentions. (Don’t forget, either, that Cheney’s final approval rating bottomed out at 13 percent in 2009. One of the lowest in history.)  “I don’t need a pat, self-defining cinematic experience like Vice any more than I need someone to cut my food into bites,” concluded another review at 4Columns.

Cheney was a master, it is said, of converting ambiguity into fact. This magic of this act made its national debut some sixteen years ago now. Going forward, we would see ambiguity replaced with “simply stated” presentations of fact. “Simply stated,” Cheney said, seven months prior to that moment when missiles arched over the Tigris, “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” With the dawn of the War on Terror, the president added a polarity: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” “Slam dunk” evidence of WMDs begat “imminent threats” begat “shock and awe” begat “bring them on.” Ours is an era still operating within the logic of these moments: flag lapel pins or dumb Bush jokes, the power to maim and kill, or none at all. It is easier, in these trying times, to ogle the size of the chasm than to offer a way across it. As McKay told the New York Times Magazine: “The world has gotten so cartoonishly exaggerated and over the top. Why be subtle anymore?”