Blog Archives

Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Advertisements

Green Zone (2010)

I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.

Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.

Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.

Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.

Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.

Nate’s Grade: B-

In the Loop (2009)

This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girl‘s Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst with how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker is an action movie on a very human scale. Sure there is a time and place for your Michael Bay-esque action vehicles, the type that scorch square miles and leave recognizable world cities in ruins. However, those kinds of action movies are never the kind where storytelling ever enters the fray beyond a meager question of how to get from Point/Explosion A to Point/Explosion B. In fact, Bay openly admits to planning the story of Transformers 2 by working on various action sequences during the 2007 writer’s strike and then tasking screenwriters to connect the dots. The Hurt Locker exists in a frighteningly believable world. This isn’t a movie about explosions but about the extinguishing of explosions. It follows the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, tasked with detecting and detonating bombs and other improvised incendiary explosives (IED) in the field of combat. You will not be restless for loud “booms” while watching The Hurt Locker. In fact, you will be on pins and needles hoping that you never hear another loud “boom.”

Delta Company are the men responsible for protecting the other soldiers by disposing of bombs. The new team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) has defused over 800 bombs during his tour of duty. He knows he’s the best and he’s addicted to the thrill of being so close to death. He will make occasionally reckless decisions putting himself, but not his fellow company men, at higher risk. This does not sit well with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book type that doesn’t appreciate his officer chasing a thrill. The other EOD unit member, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), is a man more accustomed to taking orders than giving them, and his indecision may have actually cost the life of the former head of the EOD. Both Sanborn and Eldridge worry that their new team member is going to get them all killed.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break) has been directing male-centered action flicks for over two decades; it’s been seven years since her last feature, the regrettable Harrison Ford submarine flick, K-19: The Widowmaker. The Hurt Locker is her finest work to date by far. Her action sequences are visceral and downright agonizing to sit through. She is masterful at setting up the geography of the set piece, ratcheting up the suspense, adding organic obstacles and complications, and then makes sure with her camera and editing that an audience knows exactly what’s happening to whom for every minute that ticks off the clock. Bigelow takes her time to establish the particulars of her locations and sequences, allowing the audience to, surprise, understand what is happening and better engage in the movie. Bigelow chose to shoot the movie in Jordan, the neighboring country to Iraq, and the locations and actual refugee extras add an unvarnished sense of realism. The movie goes without music during much of the action, which makes it all the more uneasy. There isn’t any over eager composer telling you how you should feel, no direction that now things will get even more hairy. You will feel every second of danger, and Bigelow crams in a whole lot of danger. Things can go wrong very, very quickly.

There’s nothing to action cinema quite like the bomb that’s only a few tick-tocks away from doing its dirty work. Do you cut the yellow wire or the green wire? Never cut the red wire. The bombs found in Iraq are a stark range of death. There’s the crude incendiary device just wrapped up in garbage, but then there’s also the fiendishly clever devices with multiple charges and there are grotesque devices as well. At perhaps the film’s most guttural and shocking moment, Staff Sgt. William James finds the corpse of an innocent stuffed with explosives. The easiest thing would be to simply detonate the bomb, but that would also desecrate the body of someone we have come to know. Watching James snip open the crude stitching and dig inside the chest cavity, if we didn’t know then we know now, Bigelow has made sure that The Hurt Locker is the most emotionally resonating contemporary war film in memory.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, an Iraq War journalist, create a vivid sense of dread, antipathy, and most of all, paranoia. Is that a kite flying in the air or is that a signal? Is that a nondescript observer with a cell phone or is that a terrorist with a remote detonator? Is that child being friendly or collecting intelligence? Your mind will race through all these possibilities because Bigelow teases out her action sequences to an unbearably taut level. The audience cares about these soldiers and wants to see them make it back home (we’re informed how many days Delta Company has left on their tour throughout the film), which Bigelow uses to her advantage at every turn. What happens matters. My nerves were frayed during several sequences, including one where the soldiers are pinned down by distant enemy gunfire. The moment turns into a duel and a chess game, as each side tries to adjust their gaze in the searing heat and measure their long-range shot before the other side beats them to it. Then the sequence turns into a waiting game. This is the kind of movie that keeps you poised on the edge of your seat fearful that at any moment something disastrous will suddenly happen. Every time Staff Sgt. William James went back out to defuse another bomb, my sense of dread intensified. I began to doubt everything that I would ordinarily take for granted in other movies.

While being a top-notch action movie, Boal (In the Valley of Elah) has also crafted a great character study. In between the bomb episodes we learn more about these men, which makes it all the more hard to see them then head out to defuse another explosive. The film opens on a quote equating war as a drug, and we explore this notion through the character of Staff Sgt. William James and the weight his unique duty bears. It takes a special person to volunteer for defusing roadside bombs. The defuser must be extremely intelligent, be extremely cool under pressure, and be able to work in a giant suit that makes them look like a chubby astronaut, while enduring debilitating desert temperatures of 110 degrees. It sounds like a suicide mission. James is an adrenaline junkie and war is his drug. He exudes a Zen-like calm in the heat of the moment and this is now the only life for him. Shopping for cereal back home has lost its meaning. Being a husband has lost its meaning. His life now has one purpose. Renner (28 Weeks Later, North Country) gives a stirring performance laced with cavalier confidence and resignation. Mackie (Eagle Eye, We Are Marshall) is also another standout in the pared down cast. When he laments about the dishonor of having no one to remember you in death, you feel the man’s existential sorrow.

Ignore the political cranks that decry The Hurt Locker as another partisan anti-war film from Hollywood. The American public has been mostly indifferent to any contemporary movie that aims to tackle our current military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but The Hurt Locker eschews the politics of war to focus on the realities and dangers of its characters. These guys are more concerned with surviving the next bomb than the politics of why they’re in the Middle East. The public has voted with their wallets and does not want to see the reality of war onscreen, or at least the Hollywood version of war reality, but I pray that those same people give The Hurt Locker a fighting chance. There is no preaching to be found here. The Hurt Locker could just have easily taken place during other wars, though the current Iraq War allows for added cultural dissonance (Is the central goal of bomb-defusing a metaphor for our conflict in the region?). This is a film that transcends politics and genre.

The Hurt Locker is more than an action movie, more than a war movie, more than a psychological study; this is an outstanding movie. This movie is a drug to the adrenaline senses and I need another hit. This is one of the finest films of the year and as it expands across the nation, I highly encourage everyone to seek out The Hurt Locker.

Nate’s Grade: A

%d bloggers like this: