Revisiting the value of political satire with ‘Vice’

Cullen Fagan, Senior Staff Reporter

Emma Vaughters | Layout Editor

I was a toddler when the World Trade Center fell to the deadliest terror attack in world history, as were the majority of my fellow Tulane students. Most of us grew up learning about this tragedy in a reverent, yet removed, manner. I definitely wasn’t paying attention to the politics leading up to the attack, nor the war that followed, until much later.

For most of us, the inner workings of politics have only just begun to enter our consciousnesses. It is difficult for me to imagine what it was like to sit in front of a television that day and watch the Twin Towers crumble, and even more difficult for me to imagine what it was like watching it from inside the situation room. That is exactly where “Vice” begins.

In what is the first of many statements that shows us exactly what director Adam McKay thinks of his titular character, former vice president Richard “Dick” Cheney, the chaos of the situation room is quieted for the for the narrator to tell us that most of the world looked at 9/11 and saw a tragedy. Dick Cheney, on the other hand, saw an opportunity.

Make no mistake, “Vice” does not pretend to be nonpartisan. This is particularly evident in a scene where a young Dick Cheney, working under the guidance of a not-yet-gray Donald Rumsfeld, asks Rumsfeld “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld’s response is to laugh, shut the door in Cheney’s face, and laugh some more until the scene fades out. This sequence is almost certainly imagined and clearly meant as a value statement against Cheney and his branch of the Republican Party.

Dick Cheney’s failings and ruthlessness could be portrayed perfectly well without this and other unrealistic exchanges. Additionally, with bit after bit of Adam McKay’s trademark absurdist explanatory tactics, the film can more often than not feel like a collection of skits rather than a consistent narrative. McKay recently complained about having to cut a musical scene in the halls of the Oval Office.

There are many parts of “Vice” that are funny and creative enough to start to make up for its lack of cohesion and clear partisanship. Explanation has been heralded as a strongpoint of McKay’s, and a board game sequence that displays Cheney’s various holdings in state agencies during Bush’s first term stands out as equally engaging and informative.

Arguably the best scene in the entire film is a scene where Cheney turns towards the audience and delivers a cutting and disturbingly realistic monologue, actually pieced together from various Cheney speeches over the years. Christian Bale, who plays Cheney, is a marvel, with his widely-reported physical transformation only the beginning. The real value of “Vice,” however, is not in the information that it gives but the questions it inspires.

Watching “Vice”, it became clear to me not only how much the politics of the ‘90s and early 2000s affected politics today, but how absolutely little I know about the political climate of that era. The older viewers of “Vice” may simply see a rehash of last few decades, but for someone who was nine on the day Cheney left office, it was a revelation.

For most of us under 25, whose history classes rarely stretched beyond the 1960s, there is a gaping hole in our collective memories that a mainstream film like “Vice” begins to fill. By no means can “Vice” stand alone as a historical record, but it made me Google “unitary executive theory” and think, “Hey, this might be important.” And that’s definitely something.

Looking at “Vice” and some of its shortcomings, it is easy to compare it to Adam McKay’s previous political satire, “The Big Short,” and see a tragedy. Observing a generation confused by our broken political system and unsure where to start untangling the mess, I see an opportunity.

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