A sort of (but not really) film review
Let’s get something out of the way: yes, Christian Bale is great in Vice. He crushes it. He destroys it. He is Dick Cheney. People are saying he deserves awards and he appears to be winning them and, sure, he deserves the awards. He deserves the praise, the gold, all of it.
That said, Vice is not the film it wishes it was. The film is essentially little more than the first-ever adaptation of a Wikipedia article, posing as an insightful and informative biopic. It’s a Ken Burns documentary for Millennials. It’s the Patreon-funded 8-minute recap of your least favorite decade. It has all the grace and insight of a YouTube reaction video.
This is not to say Vice is bad. But it suffers from the same issues as many films and television shows these days, including The Shape of Water and The Haunting of Hill House and True Detective and a lot of other stuff out there that I don’t particularly care for but I also kinda like. It’s a work where you can tell that the creators, at every point in the process of making the film, assumed everything they were creating was very smart and very funny and very big.
That movie is not as good as it thinks it is was the first thing I thought, and said, after seeing Vice.
But, there is one thing that I think could have saved Vice. Something that could have made it far more palatable, enjoyable, and thought-provoking while toning down the elements of smugness and smarm that linger throughout the entire movie.
What could have made Vice an infinitely better film? Will Ferrell as George W. Bush.
The Enigmatic Legacy of George W. Bush
Ever since Donald Trump rose to power, the second president named George Bush has been having a moment. A baffling, perplexing, entirely unearned moment. A moment not of anything he did but because of the few things he didn’t do: namely, he wasn’t that racist or that divisive or that much of a partisan bickerer.
Sure, the argument tends to go, he started two never-ending wars, made torture acceptable, stripped away civil liberties, and, well, did a lot of other bad stuff. Sure, he did all that, we’re saying now. But wasn’t he kinda cute about the whole thing?
The good thing is that—to lift a favorite phrase of Marco Rubio—Vice dispels with this fiction once and for all that George W. Bush was a good president. However, it does resurface and hammer home a different narrative of George W. Bush, which is that he was a bumbling galoot with little intelligence or interest in running the country and the requisite amount of harmless charm needed to float him by.
The narrative reinforced by Vice is that Bush was indifferent, aloof, rather slow and ultimately little more than a comedic foil to the villainous Dick Cheney.
Which, again, is why they should’ve dropped all the pretense and had Will Ferrell play him.
The Case for Will Ferrell
Sam Rockwell is a good actor. I am not disputing that. He’s also an increasingly problematic actor, developing a penchant for playing redemption-finding racists in films that take themselves very seriously.
In the case of Vice, Rockwell might be talented but he brings nothing new to the role of Bush. Between Rockwell’s performance and Adam McKay’s script, we get the exact same iteration of Bush that Will Ferrell gave us on Saturday Night Live for several years, through the Bush v. Gore debates to and the beginning of Bush’s first term through 9/11 and the beginning of those aforementioned, endless wars.
There have been various takes on Bush in the years since his presidency and, even moreso, in the years since the start of the latest presidency.
These takes include:
- He wasn’t dumb.
- He wasn’t dumb but was a bad president.
- He was kinda dumb but smarter than most people give him credit for (an increasingly common, it seems)
- He pretended to be dumb so he could get away with much more
One of the first examples of the “the dumbness was an act” take can be found in Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, in which he sheds some insight on some of the shrewd, cleve interactions Bush had with reporters. Another example is that of David Brooks, saying Bush was much smarter than the fool he played in public.
All of this begs two questions: why and why not?
Why such a tired, not innovating take? And if they were committed to such a take, why not have Will Ferrell do it?
Because It’s a Film, Not a Movie
The answer seems simple: because Vice is a serious film. A good film. A self-assured masterpiece starring Oscar winners. It has Amy Adams instead of Isla Fisher, Christian Bale instead of Darrell Hammond, and 2018 Steve Carrell instead of 2008 Steve Carrell.
But the thing is, it’s not a very good movie. It’s an extended Saturday Night Live skit mashed up with a Buzzfeed longread. It’s an indulgent tweetstorm adapted to the silver screen. It’s exhausting.
There are so many moments in which the film loses itself in its own navel-gazing, moments like:
- When Bale and Adams, as the Cheneys in bed, recite Shakespeare
- When it’s revealed that the narrator—who acts as if he has some insider information, while providing all insights easily gleaned from a quick “who was Dick Cheney” Google search—is revealed to be the dead guy whose heart Cheney received
- A mid-credits scene in which a stereotypical angry liberal and stereotypical redneck conservative fight one another over what bias was present in the film
And to choose not to cast Will Ferrell is to a refusal to let this film find itself. It’s a movie by the guy who made Step Brothers and The Other Guys that desperately wishes it wasn’t.
And I love those movies. Here’s a great video on it, for anyone interested:
The difference is that the characters in Step Brothers were better developed. They had more to say and we received more insight into their juvenile minds. McKay seemed invested in showing us the urges and desires of those characters, rather than just the behavior and surface-level conversations we get in Vice.
Vice could have been good
Had Will Ferrell played Bush in Vice, we would see that the filmmakers were truly committed to taking risks and making something simultaneously funny and serious, stupid and smart, pointless and pointed.
A reminder that, although 2019 is a sad, awful time, a time tinged with occasional moments of bleak humor—moments like a reality star serving McDonald’s to college athletes in the White House—the years of the Bush presidency were also a sad, awful time tinged with occasional moments of bleak humor.
Ultimately, Vice has nothing new to say. It is a litany of reminders of how bad things were but none of those things are new. It’s a reminder of things that many people across the American political spectrum have allowed themselves to forget.
The only real distinction between Vice and the various SNL skits that preceded it—including one where Cheney is dialing into meetings from a location he won’t disclose, even to Bus himself—is that it features Cheney as the protagonist, rather than centering around Bush.
Of course, it will be available on Netflix or Amazon Prime or HBO eventually, inevitably, so that people can say “I watched the Dick Cheney movie last night. I can’t believe how much I learned!!”
But, yeah, Christian Bale is good in it. Hope he wins an Oscar, I guess.