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In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, a young, unfunny comedienne named Sally Weaver breaks into the big-time with an act called simply, “Jerry Seinfeld Is the Devil.” There aren’t any jokes in Sally’s cable special in the sense of setup and payoff: She just mocks Jerry with juvenile impersonations that have almost nothing to do with the way he actually speaks, acts, or thinks. And she ends her set by saying, “That’s why Jerry Seinfeld is the devil.”
Writer/director Adam McKay’s new movie Vice is the same thing. Only instead of Jerry Seinfeld, Dick Cheney is the devil.
Consider that one of the first things McKay asks us to believe is that 28-year-old Cheney (Christian Bale), having earned both a bachelor’s and master’s in political science, arrives in D.C. not knowing whether he is a Republican or a Democrat. He only decides to sign up with a Republican congressman because he likes the profane, misogynistic way Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) addresses the incoming intern class.
As if this by itself weren’t already eye-roll worthy, we shortly learn that Cheney doesn’t even possess a basic understanding of the two parties’ respective philosophies. He later corners Rumsfeld, who is quickly becoming his mentor, in the hall to ask him what Republicans believe. After a beat, Rumsfeld bursts out laughing. The implication is that they believe in nothing but amassing power, an agenda young Richard Cheney can’t sign up for fast enough. Because he’s the devil, get it?
The film portrays as satellite demons all those who rise to power with Cheney in the Bush administration, both enabling and furthering Cheney’s attempts to seize every bit of government control he can. Not one serious conservative the movie portrays, including Antonin Scalia, expresses a motive deeper or more thoughtful than a finger-tenting Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Why argue for the validity of enhanced interrogation techniques? Not because anyone actually believes they might yield information that would make Americans safer, but because advocates simply want the power to torture.
I could go on and on about all the scenes that beggar belief and could be dispelled with even a brief perusal of reputable sources. Example: Is there really evidence Lynne Cheney’s father murdered her mother? Answer: No. Did George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Cheney really cook up the idea to initiate the Iraq War because a focus group conducted by Frank Luntz suggested it would be a good way to goose their approval numbers? Only if you’re as eager as Seinfeld’s Newman was to believe whatever implausible anti-Jerry line Sally threw out.
What Vice—rated R for the F-bombs Cheney and his cronies frequently drop—is trying to sell is Pizzagate-level paranoia. It ought to be shunned by any but the most notorious ranters in the fringiest corners of the Web. Instead the Los Angeles Times calls it a “tonic for troubled times,” The New York Times claims it “transforms gaudy pop-cultural toys into tools of polemic and explanation,” and it’s leading the count for Golden Globe nominations.
As a bookend to the early, credulity-busting scenes, McKay ends with a montage that lays every recent national ill, from heroin overdoses in the suburbs of Ohio to forest fires in California, at Cheney’s feet. McKay even blames the former vice president for the undignified, infantile state of our current political dialogue. And he does it while having a high time making jokes about Cheney’s multiple heart attacks and eventual transplant being a result of his heart being so dark (har har).
Vice is a screed no more illuminating or informative than a Stephen Colbert monologue or an SNL skit. It is nasty, graceless, self-congratulatory stuff. As such, you can look for it to keep racking up wins and nominations this awards season.