Movie Review: “Vice”

Last year, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean caused a stir with her book Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. MacLean’s volume centered on the “public choice theory” of economist James Buchanan, a staple of contemporary conservative and libertarian thought, which argues that incumbent members of government are motivated by the goal of maximizing their own power. In MacLean’s telling, public choice theory is little more than a revanchist smokescreen for white supremacy—and it provides the key to understanding the endgame for the conservative fusionist project.

Adam McKay’s new Dick Cheney biopic takes more than a page from MacLean’s playbook. Less a biographical drama than a sprawling polemic, it spends most of its time ruminating on the evils of the “unitary executive theory”—the view of the Constitution that treats the President as the source and end of all executive-branch authority. This, McKay theorizes, is the thread connecting the Iraq War, large-scale deregulation, the rise of Roger Ailes and Alex Jones, torture in Abu Ghraib, and a myriad of other bugbears.

Who, you ask, is to blame for this cancer? According to McKay, none other than Cheney himself.

In broad strokes, Vice follows Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a Yale dropout and staffer for Representative Donald Rumsfeld (a forgettable Steve Carell) all the way to his time as George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) vice president. Always lurking in the background is Cheney’s ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who cuts a Lady Macbeth figure here. (In perhaps the film’s most absurd sequence, the two conspire together in Shakespearean English while lying in bed.)

In McKay’s story, Cheney tricks a slow-witted Bush into ceding massive amounts of executive authority in order to secure Cheney as his running mate. Electoral victory follows. And then, empowered by the unitary executive theory—which, McKay theorizes, was cooked up by Cheney and a cackling young Antonin Scalia in a White House boardroom—Cheney presides over the transformation of the American government into a dystopian hellscape. (Why? We have no idea.)

As should be obvious, this is not subtle stuff—or even really accurate. For one thing, the general idea behind unitary executive theory is not controversial in the legal academy. As center-left legal scholars Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig wrote in 1994, “no one denies that in some sense the framers created a unitary executive; the question is in what sense.” And moreover, it makes little sense to blame the Bush administration for today’s imperial executive: what of FDR and LBJ?

In short, from a cinematic standpoint, McKay’s conspiratorial obsession with the unitary executive is a shame. In fact, it causes him to lose sight of the much more interesting questions his film raises. Frustratingly, McKay never really cares to explore how the Iraq War became neoconservatives’ Waterloo. In McKay’s telling, the whole war was merely a pretext for selling off the country’s oil fields to the highest bidder.

Totally absent is any sense of shipwrecked optimism—of the tragic failures of liberal internationalism. It’s hard to deny that the years following the fall of the Soviet Union were flush times for globally minded thinkers—there’s a reason Francis Fukuyama penned his “end of history” thesis. But McKay takes today’s post-Iraq jadedness as a foregone conclusion. He’s not interested in why thinkers of the early aughts might’ve seen liberal democracy as the inevitable future—and his movie suffers badly for it.

In the closing moments of Vice, Cheney turns to the audience and breaks the fourth wall, daring them to question his administration’s actions. Has there been another 9/11? Do Americans sleep safer now? Was the war worth it, if it meant American civilians might live in relative peace? These are fundamental questions of morality and statecraft, but McKay never lets us believe that Cheney’s posing them in good faith. They’re framed as cynical PR justifications that no one—speaker or audience—is permitted to seriously confront. And this refusal to allow for nuance—to allow Vice to be anything other than a ham-fisted denunciation of its subjects—blunts the power of its critique. (Even more unconscionable: the film’s total failure to acknowledge the Obama administration’s embrace of NSA surveillance and its expansive drone strike campaigns.)

None of this is to say that the film isn’t watchable. For all its thematic faults, Vice is actually pretty engaging—in large part due to Bale’s fantastic performance as an “anti-Bruce Wayne” figure. Although we never really get to know what makes Cheney tick, that’s on McKay: Bale does his best with the thin material he’s been given. And from an editing standpoint, Vice (just like McKay’s prior film The Big Short) clips along at a steady pace, never letting itself get bogged down in stray tangents. Visual panache is everywhere: a sequence midway through the film, which uses stylized playing cards to depict the distribution of D.C. political power, is especially memorable.

But for all its verve, one finds it hard to ignore the yawning proficiency gap between Vice’s craftsmanship and its content: over and over, Vice comes off more like a Dinesh D’Souza documentary than a genuinely robust criticism of the Bush years. For better or for worse (but mostly for worse), it is a fundamentally unserious film, one tailor-made for the era of unsubtle Twitter takes. And that tendency is rather more frightening than the unitary executive theory itself.

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Posted by on January 8, 2019 in Contemporary


Movie Review: “Mortal Engines”

Permit me a moment of chronological snobbery: I was a fan of this film’s source books long, long before they were even a gleam in Peter Jackson’s eye. Philip Reeve’s “Hungry City Chronicles” are original, well-written tales that capture the imagination—as is this movie. I’m happy to report that one should ignore the bad Rotten Tomatoes reviews: “Mortal Engines” is mostly a triumph, one that successfully couples strong characters with a genuinely original aesthetic vision.

It’s somewhere around the year 3118. Following a devastating nuclear war, humanity’s survivors have grouped themselves into gigantic “Traction Cities”—mobile settlements constructed on caterpillar treads, which pillage smaller hamlets for precious resources. And within the rolling monstrosity that is London, archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is putting the finishing touches on a weapon that will allow London to dominate the wastes of Europe. He’s opposed by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a vengeful, badly scarred young woman with a mysterious past, and aspiring historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan).

From there, things escalate into glorious wackiness. We encounter Anna Fang, a tough-as-nails, gender-nonconforming Asian female aviator (Jihae). We meet the Terminator-like zombie cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang), a virtually indestructible colossus hellbent on reuniting with Hester, his former protege. We visit the floating city of Airhaven and a makeshift slave market. On and on it goes, building towards a final chaotic carnival of steampunk energy. It’s quite a ride—in the best of ways.

While its narrative beats are familiar, its characters aren’t. Hester in particular is a fascinating figure—from the start she’s fierce and aloof, perfectly capable of fending for herself in a hostile world. There’s no hint here of the stereotypical flatness of so many action heroines: her story isn’t collapsed into a man’s arc, and she doesn’t achieve self-realization through romance. She’s independent, interesting, and seems like a real person. (One wishes Hester, and not Jyn Erso, had been the protagonist of “Rogue One.”)

On a more reflective note: although Reeve is professedly secular, crucial elements of his work belie that description. Consider by contrast the case of Philip Pullman (to whose books Reeve’s novels’ are often compared). Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy was a calculated secular deconstruction of Narnia and its ilk, undergirded by a full-fledged humanistic vision of the cosmos. Yet notwithstanding his clumsy critique of religious fervor in the prequel novel “A Web of Air,” Reeve largely rejects this kind of allegory. And in so doing, he embraces multiple plot points that are curiously inconsistent with his own secularism. Shrike’s character arc, for instance, assumes a fundamental difference between humans and machines. But as someone like Daniel Dennett would be sure to point out, that sort of thinking doesn’t fit well with Reeve’s self-professed worldview. Nor does Reeve’s critique of the “Municipal Darwinism” philosophy espoused by his villains—that large cities ought to ingest and assimilate smaller ones in the name of movement, progress, evolution. Apart from any notion of final causes or ends, isn’t this precisely how all history unfolds? Reeve’s themes, in short, are at odds with his beliefs.

All that said, my one major beef with “Mortal Engines” is its dialogue, which all too often has an unfortunate B-movie quality to it. More than once, evocative, well-shot scenes are overlaid with frustratingly expository commentary. Subtlety, though, has never been producer Jackson’s forte—and by the time the plot reaches the boiling point, one is willing to look past a few clunker phrases. So be it.

So is it worth seeing?

In short, “Mortal Engines” is the sort of sprawling, offbeat adventure I wish Hollywood would make more often. In an era of endless superhero sequels, “Star Wars” spinoffs, and reincarnated Disney classics, it’s nice to see something that defiantly asserts a different identity. It might not win any Oscars, but it’s real fun. And sometimes, that’s enough.

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Posted by on December 15, 2018 in Sci-Fi

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