There's Something Fishy About 'Vice' Getting So Many Oscar Nominations

Adam McKay's Dick Cheney "biopic" tells us nothing about the most powerful vice president in history.
Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in "Vice."
Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in "Vice."
Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures

When news of Adam McKay’s latest movie first spread, cinephiles were excited. Here was the writer of “The Big Short” along with an unbelievable cast playing even more unbelievable characters. Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Christian Bale as the one and only Dick Cheney. The promise of a good ol’ fashioned Hollywood roasting of American politics (and Halliburton) seemed too good to be true.

Then “Vice” actually premiered.

The movie plays like an uneven montage of bewigged celebrities doing exaggerated impersonations of White House personnel. Through a narrator loosely related to Dick Cheney (we’ll get to that later), McKay tells a tired tale of a power-hungry Joe Shmoe who transformed from lowly intern for Rumsfeld to Bush’s quietly snarling vice president in a matter of decades. Stuck in between the narration are confusing shots of fish (Cheney loved fishing so much that his Secret Service code name was Angler) and other wildlife meant to evoke the VP’s cutthroat code of conduct. The same critics who were psyched for its arrival called “Vice” “gimmicky,” “entertainingly horrible” and “rarely exactly funny.”

Nonetheless, the movie earned eight Oscar nominations earlier this week, including one for best picture. The nod left HuffPost’s Leigh Blickley and Bill Bradley wondering: How? After much deliberation and multiple viewings of this dastardly film, here’s what our two reporters make of the Academy Award-nominated movie “Vice”:

Leigh Blickley: Billeigh it or not, we’re here to talk about the Dick Cheney biopic-of-sorts, “Vice,” which just earned Adam McKay and his cast and crew eight Oscar nominations.

That’s right. E-I-G-H-T. My mind is a little blown here, Bill, because, frankly, this is a bad movie.

Bill Bradley: It’s Vice to be here, honest-leigh. You know, watching “Vice” was weirdly nostalgic for me because it reminded me a lot of my high school MySpace page from the early 2000s, which consisted of a bunch of random pictures I crammed together in an unholy collage. There was everything from photos of blue Jell-O to the band FlyLeaf, and instead of a song playing, I just hosted ambient animal sounds. “Vice” is what would’ve happened had I turned my MySpace page into a movie. So, in a sense, I’m happy for High School Bill, that he’d get some Oscar nominations. On the other hand, would he deserve those Oscar nominations?

For me, these awards are more about what the academy hopes to communicate by endorsing a movie and less about the movie itself. The academy wants to say it hates tyrannical dictators, that it likes Amy Adams. “Hey, we’re super edgy and cool when it comes to politics. Right, kids? Aren’t our politics cool? We’re totally politics.”

Leigh: Yes, the academy clearly couldn’t pass up a dark comedy about a ruthless Republican who sneakily climbed the White House ladder to become one of the most influential vice presidents in history (all while suffering numerous, comedically depicted heart attacks).

These are trying times, and the voters just want to celebrate an unrecognizable, chubby Batman for playing party-boy-turned-political-powerhouse Dick Cheney. (“What a transformation by the actor who is constantly transforming!”) But to celebrate a movie like this over films like “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Eighth Grade” or “Sorry to Bother You” seems, well, off.

Sure, McKay is an experimental director who loves testing the audience with fourth-wall-breaking style. But unlike “The Big Short,” which also earned him a few Oscar nominations in 2016, “Vice” fails to become anything other than a mishmash of terribly edited scenes. Let’s start there, Bill. What did you think of the movie’s editing style? Did the random fishing scenes or freeze-frame moments entrance you?

Bill: I actually used to fish a lot, so again, it’s like if High School Bill made this movie and was constantly going, “Wait, you know what’d make this scene that has nothing to do with fish even better? Fish.” “Vice,” to me, has the vibe of someone messing around with Adobe Premiere for the first time. Like, OK, I imported this scene of a lion eating a gazelle. Oops, I put my credit sequence right in the middle. Oh, well. At least there are fish! In a weird way, it makes sense that the key to an Oscar-bait movie is fish.

What would you say was the point in the movie where you were like, “Wait. What the heck is going on?”

Leigh: When the narrator is explaining how Cheney “got the boot” from Yale and the editor, Hank Corwin, immediately cuts to a visual of a pair of saggy boots sitting on the ground, I was done for. Certain McKay gimmicks briefly work, like Adams and Bale’s Shakespearean exchange or the mid-movie credit sequence you mentioned. Both made me chuckle. But they’re cheap laughs! I’d much rather be genuinely taken by a clever line or metaphor than be tricked into falling for a blatant laugh sequence.

I have to say, the movie’s saving grace is its performances, as demonstrated by the Oscar nominations for Bale, Adams and Sam Rockwell, whose 10-minute George W. Bush impersonation is pretty spot-on. But we expect those performances from this lot of talent! No matter if she’s playing the no-bullshit Lynne Cheney or a peppy cheerleader in “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” we know Adams will deliver the goods. Same with Bale, who truly embodies the slightly sinister Cheney with ease. What did you think of the performances?

Bill: The talent here is too big to fail, but I also think its star gave it a big Bale out. Somehow he can make you feel empathy at moments for Dick Cheney. When I was watching “Vice,” and Cheney first starting showing signs of heart problems, the person next to me gasped. In that moment, you’re genuinely like, “Oh, no!” Maybe I couldn’t help looking at him like an old, out-of-shape Batman, but when Cheney was down, I felt like chanting, “Rise! Rise!” like it was a “Dark Knight” movie. “Where is the trigger!”

Anyway, then you remember he’s playing a terrible person, and you move on. The rest of the acting is fine. Everyone’s good, but it does feel a little bit like a two-hour “Saturday Night Live” skit, since you can obviously tell Sam Rockwell is not George Bush, Steve Carell is not Donald Rumsfeld. I almost expected Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump to stroll in at some point.

Do you feel like you learned anything about the administration and Dick Cheney after watching the movie?

Leigh: Bill, I learned nothing. There were so many times when I found myself thinking, “What is Adam McKay trying to say here?” He glossed right over Cheney’s involvement with oil-services giant Halliburton from 1995 to 2000, which would have been THE MOST interesting part of the film. We learn nothing about Cheney except that he was a power-hungry man who would “fish” for politicians who would be gullible enough to give him more authority in government. Cheney is a secretive man; I was hoping McKay would at least have fun with that and give viewers a taste of what could have been going on. Instead, we get random shots of fish and hearts and “Planet Earth” while interesting statistics flash across our scene and disappear faster than Cheney’s cocktail.

What did you learn from “Vice”?

Bill: I agree the most salacious parts of his biography are just glossed over or not covered at all. I didn’t know he used to work on power lines, that’s something. But what is up with all the fish? A lot of this movie seems to be focused on the message: “Hey, Dick Cheney is a person, too.” But the intercuts to fish did not make me think about his humanity. Instead, I was like, was Dick Cheney a fish in his former life? Are we seeing flashbacks from his aquatic form? Was this movie just accidentally taped over an episode of “Planet Earth”? What’s your biggest question left over?

Leigh: I am still confused by why McKay thought it would be fun to include a narrator “twist” of sorts. This narrator, played by Jesse Plemons, introduces himself at the beginning of the movie by saying he’s “related” to Cheney, “but we’ll get to that later.” He takes us through Cheney’s career, his many heart attacks and a backdrop of family drama before it’s revealed that the narrator happens to be the deceased veteran whose heart was donated to Cheney in 2012. It’s a weird reveal, one I’m assuming McKay thought would have a bigger impact than it did.

Like you, I’m not sure whether he wants us to feel for Cheney or absolutely despise him.

Bill: I think the after-credits scene kind of sums up my feelings on this movie. In it, we see a focus group that’s featured earlier in the film, only this time they’re actually talking about the movie “Vice.” One person says the movie has a liberal bias. He calls another guy a “libtard,” and then the supposed libtard calls Donald Trump an “orange Cheeto.” They get in a fight. Chaos ensues. While that’s going on, a young woman who’s not really paying attention says, “I can’t wait to see the new ‘Fast and the Furious’ movie. That looks lit.”

This seems like some sort of indictment of people who find themselves easily distracted by popular culture and thus incapable of paying attention to serious politics. But the whole joke falls flat given how terrible this glossy Hollywood movie is. There are interesting ideas here, but for me the movie was more exhausting to watch.

Leigh: So let’s get down to it. Should people see this movie? If you’re a movie buff, my answer would be yes, only because McKay is a risk-taker in terms of directing and sometimes it feels good to be a completist. But if you were hoping for an entertaining, sharp biopic about Dick Cheney, this is not the movie for you. If you’re a Christian Bale fan, sure, watch it. Otherwise, this is a hard pass.

This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.

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