Decadence and the Destruction of Discourse: The Death of Modern America in Adam McKay’s VICE

Vice. 2018. Directed & Written by Adam McKay.
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, & Tyler Perry.
Plan B Entertainment/Gary Sanchez Productions/Annapurna Pictures
Rated R. 132 minutes.

screen shot 2019-01-21 at 4.00.51 pmThere are opinions about Vice which seem to suggest Adam McKay’s, in some way, humanised Dick Cheney. What were those people watching? Although the screenplay is great, and its execution even better, there’s a hard line of cynicism about politicians and American itself running throughout. Cheney’s never once presented as a good human being, and in moments where it feels like this is where the screenplay may be heading his humanity is fast proven as lacking.
McKay was already good at satirising American culture with his work on Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, then he moved into socioeconomic territory with The Big Short, only for this Cheney biopic to serve as an endgame in his comedic evolution. His satire works best when applied to the upper echelons of power. It’s not only smart, it’s venomous, and venom is the only way to genuinely speak truth to power.
What Vice does most effectively is look inside the excess of power Cheney found himself swimming in after manoeuvring his way into the inner circle of Washington, D.C. over the course of decades. McKay focuses on how America corrupts individuals, like Cheney, who further go on to corrupt the country in a perpetual cycle of decadence that erodes whatever good ever existed at the nation’s core. Who are the ultimate victims? American citizens (particularly POC), civilian casualties abroad, the rhetoric of any semblance of sensible political discourse in the country, and far, far more. In 1887, Lord Acton wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This quote defines Cheney: a man whose body and soul were consumed by the destructive essence of power.
screen shot 2019-01-21 at 3.49.04 pm

“He would be a dedicated & humble servant to power”

screen shot 2019-01-21 at 4.36.07 pmDonald Trump recently proved literally anybody can be President of the United States— you don’t even have to read books! Cheney’s meteoric rise through the American political system is shown succinctly in the early moments of Vice, during which we go from 1963, when Dick (played at all ages to eerie perfection by Christian Bale) was pulled over drunk driving, to six years later in D.C. where he ends up interning for Donald Rumsfeld (played hilariously goofy by Steve Carrell), who’s more than happy to help a fellow Republican sweep pesky DUI charges under the rug. This social mobility for mediocre white men in America is scarily illustrated by how Cheney could reinvent himself to such an extent. Like he and others prove, a reinvented man doesn’t equate to a good one.
An important aspect of McKay’s screenplay deals with the destructive influence of America as a nation on its citizens and also how this influence is repeated cyclically by those it corrupts. Cheney grew up in a U.S. largely devoid of safety regulations and with a general disdain for unionised workers. The socioeconomic conditions in which we live, and particularly grow up, shape us significantly. Cheney’s attitudes and morality were shaped by the America that bore him: a white America in love with capitalism, no matter the human cost, a violently masculine U.S. that allowed angry white men to make mistake after mistake without having to take any responsibility for their actions while being given every last opportunity to climb the social ladder and “become someone.” He lived in a “Back to work” America, where a person’s potentially life altering injuries on the job were mere inconvenience to production. Cheney was made by a country that was, first and foremost, an economic machine incapable of letting itself stop running.
The former Vice President epitomises the country’s capitalist lifeblood. His new heart’s the perfect symbol: just another way for the bourgeois elitist to feed off those younger than him and extend his life. It’s similar to sending all those young men and women off to war so they could die for a bullshit cause, or how any government made up of old men sends their youth off to war. It’s also similar to the way in which Dick, as patriarch of the Cheney family, allowed the betrayal of his lesbian daughter by his straight politician daughter in order to extend his legacy and political influence. There’s nothing this man believes is sacred, outside money and power.
screen shot 2019-01-21 at 5.27.51 pm

“You chose me— & I did what you asked.”

screen shot 2019-01-21 at 4.58.40 pmA huge portion of Vice, in between the major events of Cheney’s career, is dedicated to the way the V.P. altered American discourse and political rhetoric, dividing people across the country along strictly drawn party lines. Early on, the screenplay pounds us with age old rhetoric of the modern Republican party: Affirmative Action is bad for white people, big city liberals ignore “the rest of America” outside of California and New York, feminism hurts families, and lower taxes (for rich people, particularly) are what will save the country. This is all crystallised in Reaganomics— here’s where McKay gives us the original “Make America Great Again” slogan coming out of the Gipper‘s mouth.
When Cheney comes to power by piggybacking off the fratboy-ish George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, giving an utterly wonderful performance) he starts to take hold of the rhetoric in a powerful way. Capitalist Dick uses focus groups to figure out how best to manipulate the very people in those groups and the rest of America. This is where global warming becomes climate change, where the Iraq War is justified by whittling people down through tedious rhetorical games, and where the division between right/left only gets worse and more heated. A mid-credits scene features the prominent focus group we see in a couple scenes. They devolve into absolute chaos and near violence as a millennial age member of the group seems oblivious looking on, talking about what’s “lit.” This scene captures the state of discourse in America today, especially online, where it’s mostly about who yells the loudest(/gets the most retweets), not about undisputed facts. Even so-called liberals on Twitter would rather argue over spelling and grammar than focus on the real issues.
All of Cheney’s effects on American political discourse and rhetoric boil down to the fact many people – and as a white man Father Gore says this honestly, it’s a majority made up of WHITE people – are oblivious to what’s actually happening behind the news media’s portrayal of events. The right are lost in racism, misogyny, and a self-destructive love of capitalism. The left are consumed by trying to be the perfect opposition, believing that playing fair with people who only ever play dirty is, somehow, going to accomplish anything meaningful in the long run. The final scene of the film shows Cheney sitting down to do an interview. In the middle, he decides to address the camera, looking right at us, the audience. He laments being the one to do the dirty work while others pontificate about morality. First off, this embodies the man’s arrogance in whole form, down to the smug look on Bale’s face. More importantly, there’s a piece of truth in this monologue when he says the people ‘chose’ him.
Cheney was V.P., so he wasn’t entirely picked like G.W. Bush was as President. What he means is America gets concentrated into entities like Cheney, and today Trump. These men reveal things about the nation. America was capitalist long before Cheney, just like it was racist LONG before Trump. These men are symptomatic of larger, prevalent issues in U.S. culture, and they’re ‘chosen’ in the sense they’re allowed to come to power by a lack of care in voters (think of the voter turnout % in each election and think what could happen if more people actually cast a ballot), as well as a general apathy in many people who can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to politicians and political parties. Cheney, Trump, and all who are like them don’t appear as identities in a vacuum— they’re icons, symbolic of the nation’s worst ideals.
screen shot 2019-01-21 at 5.30.21 pmWhile America’s worst conservatives have brainwashed right-wing voters into believing Barack Obama’s administration helped create ISIS, the rest of us know Bush’s administration was responsible for creating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as we know it today through their outrageous military actions post-9/11. When Republicans try to tell you ‘the Left’ are the ones who’ve destroyed discourse through political correctness, the rest of us realise Cheney, and plenty of others in the Grand Old Party, have worked constantly over decades to blur and corrode the rhetoric to a point they’ve only confused their own people into believing every conservative talking point without question and frustrated their opposition through dumbing down the conversation.
And this is what McKay’s angry about when he spits his pessimistic venom at Cheney, both Bush administrations, and the complacent Americans who sit by while their country burns. Because today many are willing to stick their heads in the sand— not only straight white people, either, though without doubt we consist of a majority when it comes to obliviousness, or outright ignorance, in regards to issues affecting POC and the LGBTQ(+) community.
Vice is a searing satire and call to action. Cheney’s one of the worst people to influence American politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. He wasn’t concerned with facts, only with the appearance of being right and retaining power at all costs. He treated war and politics like a game and business, gambling with lives and countries like he used to do with cash as a younger man. He’s everything wrong with the political system in the Western world, exemplifying how those without the personality to lead usually wield their powerful influence from the shadows, allowing them to operate without restriction, and, all too often, without repercussion. The greatest power is the power we don’t, won’t, or can’t see.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s