So over the holidays me and the fam had the opportunity to watch Kenneth Branagh’s new film Belfast, which he based on his own memories of growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Branagh was born into a Protestant family that fled Belfast for England around 1969-70 or so, when Branagh was about 10 or 11 (if I remember correctly), following the eruption of what came to be known as “the Troubles,” the cycle of violence related to the longstanding dispute over Catholic civil rights in Northern Ireland. We streamed the film at our home with my Belfast-born and bred mother in attendance, who was visiting for Christmas.

My mother is Catholic and was raised in the predominantly Catholic area of west Belfast, just off the Falls Road, so it goes without saying that she had a different perspective than Branagh, who as a Protestant was raised in a Protestant majority area that had some Catholic residents who were therefore a distinct minority in their neighborhood. I should note, however, that my mother left Belfast for the U.S. in 1963 (at the tender age of 19), about six years before the Troubles, and Branagh’s story, commenced in August of 1969. But based on what mom’s told me of her experience growing up there in a Catholic family through the 1950s and early ’60s, it seems to me that Branagh’s portrayal of Northern Ireland’s main political dispute as suddenly erupting into violence, seemingly out of nowhere, lacks a great deal of context.

Now keep in mind that by no means do I claim to be some kind of expert on Northern Ireland’s history and politics just because that’s where my mom is from and I’ve visited family there on a few occasions over the years. (I was last there as a teenager and that, my friends, was a very, very long time ago.) But just based on what little knowledge I’ve gleaned from my mother and relatives overseas, a couple of things struck me as a little odd.

“There is no our side and their side of our street, at least there didn’t used to be,” laments the father (ably played by a stolid Jamie Dornan) of the little boy through whose eyes we are told this family’s story. That observation seems a little strange. Mom has told stories of her and her sisters standing up and pelting their local cinema’s screen with food, various detritus, curses, and stiffly upright middle fingers whenever Queen Elizabeth II’s visage was displayed as the obligatory “God Save the Queen” came over the sound system, which always preceded the preview of coming attractions. That was well over a decade before the Troubles. One has to wonder where Mr. Branagh–the “Pa” in the movie is based on Branagh’s late father–had been during his 30-something years of existence.

Branagh’s family may have had no truck with the Catholics in their own neighborhood, but there was most certainly a very explicit sense of “us” and “them” that, by 1969, had pervaded Northern Ireland’s politics for decades, ever since Ireland’s six northeastern-most counties, with their Protestant majorities and Catholic minorities, were partitioned off as “Northern Ireland” in 1921 and kept under British rule, following Ireland’s war for independence and subsequent civil war. The rest of Ireland, meanwhile, with its Catholic majority, became a self-governing republic. Northern Ireland’s Catholics had protested that they had been effectively relegated to second class status almost from the very beginning. Prominent among their list of grievances was that they had been systematically excluded from certain jobs, particularly civil service jobs. That had profound implications for public and social services in Northern Ireland’s Catholic communities, and for their economic situation overall.

Surely, Pa Branagh was aware of all that, which renders his observation naive at best, or at the very least tone deaf.

That leads me to another claim that Pa makes during the course of the film that struck me as strange–that the source of the conflict was the religious differences between Protestants and Catholics. That seems to be more the kind of superficial assessment that you would expect from a casual outside observer who had absolutely zero knowledge of the conflict’s politics and history, rather than someone who had been born and raised in Northern Ireland and had lived there well into their 30s by 1969. The conflict was always political in nature, a brute struggle for raw power, with the fault lines naturally delineating the Protestants as British unionists and the Catholics as Irish republicans for historical reasons. To my understanding, theological differences between Protestantism and Catholicism as such never played much of a role at all.

But the above quibbles never prevented me from enjoying this film. The main dramatic thrust of Branagh’s story, after all, is a family’s struggle to choose between remaining in the only country they’ve ever known to be home even as it spirals downwards into an abyss of violence and chaos, or leaving for another, stranger, place in order to secure a more peaceful future for their young sons. It’s a touching story, one that many people all over the world, unfortunately, could certainly relate to. And though I think it’s usually too obvious to even state, I will remind the reader that one should never expect to glean any accurate history from the movies. For that, you need to do the much more difficult work of seeking out reliable sources and doing your own research.

And this movie has a great cast. As the child of a northern Irish mother, I can reliably attest that Caitriona Balfe is the very quintessence of northern Irish motherhood. Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents are particularly moving, especially in their scenes with the story’s young protagonist, played by the undeniably charming Jude Hill. Your heart would have to be made of ice as thick as a glacier for it not to melt.

Though the film’s black and white cinematography has a kind of arthouse, Truffautesque feel about it, this movie is really just a straightforward tale about people who genuinely love and care for each other having to make tough choices when it seems that the whole world has gone stark raving mad. And for that, Belfast is a most welcome and refreshing diversion.

About ‘Last Night in Soho’…

So the wife and I decided to catch filmmaker Edgar Wright’s latest at the moving picture show last night, Last Night in Soho. I had never been as big of a fan of his work as some people–he seems to have a fairly devout base of fanboys–but I always thought that he at least knows how to serve up a decent couple of hours or so of entertainment. Actual storytelling was never quite Wright’s greatest strength but at least his movies were usually funny. Any plot deficiencies that Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz may have had were more than compensated by the humor that permeated those movies, as schoolboyish as it may be. I never got the impression from Wright that he was ever necessarily out to make grand cinematic masterpieces. His goal always seemed to be to simply provide some decent distraction for the moviegoer’s dollar. And that’s perfectly fine. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that at all.

But now he’s given us Last Night in Soho. It seems that Edgar wants to take himself a little more seriously these days, which is also fine, but the result is a bright and pretty neon dish that unfortunately serves up some very confused storytelling, with very little of the laughter that is usually to be had in his films. It’s so confusing, and so offensive to the audience’s intelligence, as to be downright embarrassing.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Wright has become anxious to change things up a bit and get a little more artsy. “Evolve or die,” as the late John Lennon once said during the recording of Sgt. Pepper. Wright’s 2017 movie Baby Driver attempted to extend his artistic reach beyond his usual grasp, but as far as plot and story goes, that action-heist-car chase crime thriller is far more satisfying than Soho. Of course, Wright reportedly spent two decades developing Driver, having started working on the script as an adolescent. Soho feels like it was slapped together over a long weekend of heavy drinking and bong hits some time during the height of the #MeToo controversy. This is all the more perplexing considering that the film was co-written with a woman screenwriter, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also co-wrote the script of Sam Mendes’ perfectly respectable (if not entirely memorable) World War I drama, 1917, for which she shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Mendes. Soho is definitely attempting to make some kind of a statement about women and what they have had to deal with in the professional world in both the past and in the present, but whatever it is that it’s trying to say is much too garbled to make out. Surely Wilson-Cairns must have a more distinct take.

The film looks good, to be sure. Edgar Wright never fails to deliver pretty pictures and some interesting camera work, and he obviously finds mid-1960s London to be quite the inspiration. But–and this should be more than obvious to a filmmaker of Wright’s caliber–if you’re going to pull a bait-and-switch on your audience, the switch had better turn out be a lot more satisfying than what they thought they were getting when they took the bait. At the very least, you shouldn’t totally undermine in the final act a major part of the premise that you had set up in the first.

It was entirely fitting that Wright should cast veteran actors Terrence Stamp and Diana Rigg in a film that in part harkens back to the swinging ’60s. But Stamp turns out to be a mostly incidental character and so he’s unjustly wasted in this movie. And it’s very sad that this was Rigg’s final curtain. Young lead actress Thomasin McKenzie is fine in the lead role of Eloise considering that she’s saddled with a character who’s almost an entirely reactive protagonist, an apparently unintended irony considering the film’s semi-feminist pretensions. (McKenzie was far better in the underrated and underappreciated JoJo Rabbit.) Matt Smith also appears to be trying his best with the script’s shallow character development.

I appear to be a part of a small minority, however. Soho has an audience rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and though the critics’ rating is a more tepid 74%, that strikes me as surprisingly high in light of just how bad this film is. As horror, while I suppose it does have its moments of creepiness, it’s not really that scary. There aren’t any moments that shock and jolt you out of your seat. This flick also fails as suspense. Only a total moron would fail to see the film’s supposed “twist” being telegraphed well in advance of its “big reveal” (which, as I’ve alluded to above, completely contradicts a major element of the film’s established premise, leaving the viewer completely befuddled). Either people are getting dumber, or perhaps I’m becoming more and more crotchety as I age. Or maybe it’s both.

Last Night in Soho does seem to be the kind of neon-shiny crap that people typically flock to these days.

A Wilderness of Delusion

I recently finished watching Marc Smerling’s docuseries A Wilderness of Error on the FX network. This series is based on the book of the same name by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, published in 2012. The book relates the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two little girls when the family lived on-base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one cold and rainy night in February of 1970. MacDonald was a captain in the Green Berets at the time.

It’s an amazing story, in that it’s particularly amazing that anyone has ever believed that MacDonald could possibly be innocent. And yet Federal appeals courts have heard MacDonald’s case in the years since his conviction on several occasions, whenever some supposedly game-changing new evidence came to light. Appeals related to the case have even ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court—-twice. It is in fact the most litigated and longest running criminal case in U.S. history.

But every alleged piece of new evidence that prompted another appeal by MacDonald and his lawyers always related to the same old discredited story that the convicted family annihilator has been peddling from the very beginning: That a band of drugged out hippies forced their way into the townhouse where the MacDonalds were residing and butchered the family as they chanted, “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” (That little flourish in MacDonald’s tale would be laughable if not for the immensely tragic circumstances.) Colette MacDonald and little Kristen and Kimberly were all viciously stabbed and beaten multiple times, while the crazed hippies apparently left MacDonald with only a handful of wounds that were mostly superficial, with the sole exception of a neat, sharp puncture in his chest that collapsed one of his lungs.

I have not read the book but from what I understand Morris seemed strongly inclined at the time of its publication to believe that MacDonald is innocent; he seems much more reticent and ambivalent in the new TV series.

One of his best known documentary films is The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988. The film covers the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas and subsequently sentenced to death. In the course of making the film, not only did Morris discover that Adams was innocent, but that the young man who had actually committed the crime testified against Adams at the trial, helping to convict him. The appalling miscarriage of justice makes for a compelling story. Adams was eventually released from prison and spared the electric chair at very near the 11th hour, in large part due to Morris’ film.

But if Morris has been obsessing over the MacDonald case since the early 1990s, as he says he has, then surely it must have dawned on him at some point that Jeffrey MacDonald is no Randall Dale Adams. The only person who has ever ventured to suggest that she could possibly corroborate MacDonald’s story, a very troubled young woman named Helena Stoeckley, proved to be wildly unreliable. Though she had reportedly told several people that she may have been in the MacDonald home that fateful night and witnessed the carnage herself, upon taking the stand during the 1979 trial she denied ever being there, much to the dismay of defense attorney Bernie Segal. (Smerling’s fascinating companion podcast to the series, Morally Indefensible, provides additional background not included in the FX series that casts even more doubt on Stoeckley’s initial claims.)

Since the marauding-band-of-drug-crazed-hippies story consistently falls apart under just a modicum of serious scrutiny, that leaves only one possibility as to who is the guilty party: Dr. MacDonald. It is tragically obvious. That someone as smart and educated as Errol Morris could seriously believe otherwise is a testament to the limits of human intelligence. Intelligence is often compromised by belief, and we are all vulnerable.

My wife and I once attended a talk given by Morris at the Music Box Theater in Chicago about two and a half years ago. He was not promoting a film at the time, but another book, The Ashtray: Or the Man Who Denied Reality. The book is highly critical of the theories of the famous philosopher of science Dr. Thomas Kuhn, under whom Morris had studied for awhile at Princeton University.

At one point in the evening, the discussion turned to politics. Morris informed his audience that he fully expected Donald Trump to launch a nuclear first-strike on North Korea. Granted, this was during the time of Trump’s rabid “fire and fury” tweets aimed at the Hermit Kingdom, but it also happened to play into the absolutely worst assumptions that his blue state audience had regarding Trump. It was a little too simplistic, this mutually reassuring belief Morris and his audience shared that night, and it turned out to be incredibly wrong. Not only was Morris’ morbid and apocalyptic prediction mistaken, but it turned out to be the exact opposite of what Trump actually did, which was to sit down and talk to Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. That approach was a very far cry from slaughtering the people of North Korea with nuclear fire.

But that didn’t matter at all, of course, for the historic summit that occurred, with its signed agreement for more peaceful relations between the two countries, then conveniently served as a yet another example of Trump’s ongoing affection for totalitarian dictators. But at least everyone has reverted back to their typical apathy toward the U.S.-North Korean relationship ever since it slipped back into its usual bellicosity.

However misguided Morris may be in the views that he may (or may no longer) hold regarding the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, he at least deserves credit for encouraging his audience to question their assumptions, and to remind them that the truth is usually not so easily gained.

A Wilderness of Error is imminently watchable, suspenseful, and fraught with dramatic tension throughout, and told through the eyes of memorable real-life characters—-some of them tragically so. This kind of soul searching, however, may be put to much better use than speculating on the decades long, overly indulged protestations of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

The Rise of Skywalker, the Implosion of the Star Wars Universe

I took the fam out to see the new Star Wars flick, The Rise of Skywalker, on New Year’s Eve. I’d been intending to sit down since and write up my own thoughts on this final cinematic chapter of the Skywalker saga, but just never seemed to have the time or motivation. It would basically have been a long rant on what a jumbled, incoherent, pointless mess of a movie it is. And who really wants to spend time writing or reading about that?

I had given this new trilogy the benefit of the doubt for the first two installments, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, for all of their flaws. But Skywalker wraps it all up with just a bunch of laughable MacGuffins that lead to other MacGuffins, unresolved relationships, and nostalgia-cheese that shamelessly exploits, for cheap feelies, the original characters and ideas of the franchise’s creator, whom Disney ironically shut out of their process. Skywalker even inexplicably resurrects the villain that George Lucas definitively killed off in Return of the Jedi.

This video from The Critical Drinker sums up the Skywalker train wreck much better than anyone else could, in his inimitably wry and uniquely entertaining fashion.

(Nod to author John C. Wright.)

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Rian Johnson Gets His ‘Knives Out’

Spoilers galore are ahead from the recently released ‘Knives Out.’

I recently took the family out to the movies to see Knives Out, the new film directed by Rian Johnson that’s being marketed to audiences as a “whodunnit” mystery-suspense caper. The trailers definitely give you the impression that the story is in the style of Agatha Christie or Clue, sort of cutting it down the middle between the two stylistically in that the comedy is much less broad than it is in Clue.

Come to find out, a whodunnit is not exactly what it is. It starts out that way, to be sure, but even before the story is half way through, the audience is supplied with a major piece of the puzzle, and at that point it becomes much more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than a mystery–though there’s still some mystery remaining to be solved, to be sure, as anti-climactic as it is.

Johnson’s first two indy features, the high school noir Brick and the time-travel potboiler Looper, while not flawless, are highly enjoyable and entertaining films worth watching. Disney took notice and tapped him to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A lot of critics have referred to Johnson “subverting expectations” with Knives Out, and putting a new twist on a genre that’s been a bit of a chestnut over the years should be welcomed. And if there’s anyone who should succeed in doing that, it should be the director of Brick and Looper.

However, and call me old fashioned if you like, I’m of the opinion that the plot should make some sense. It should at least be somewhat believable in order for what the director intends to be the “twist”–the intended subversion of the expected, if you will–to be truly satisfying for an audience, rather than, say, an act of cinematic masturbation for the director’s own personal pleasure. The latter is much more the case with Knives Out than the former. And the reason is simply politics.

That’s right: Politics.

Politics is the reason that Knives Out‘s plot stretches credulity to the point where you feel as though Rian Johnson is literally urinating all over your brain. I had a similar sensation when I saw Carrie Fischer flying through space in Last Jedi. Only with Knives Out, it felt as though the urine stream hit my brain even harder, and it never stopped for the entire two hours.

This is where the spoilers come in, so if you’re thinking that you still might want to head over to your nearest cineplex and make up your own mind, now would be the time for you to check out of my little critique. I don’t think I’d be spoiling much for you, however, if you stuck around. Most of what I’m about to divulge you’d probably see coming from a mile away anyways.

Knives Out

But if you leave now determined to go pay full ticket price at your local cineplex, you should know that it’s the film’s star-studded cast that makes it as enjoyable as it is. In my opinion, it’s definitely a streaming-on-a-rainy-Sunday-afternoon kind of flick. Your life wouldn’t exactly suffer for the lack of enrichment in the meantime.

The catalyzing incident of our story is the sudden death of the very successful, very rich, and very old best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. It appears to be a suicide, and by a very grisly method at that. The morning after a lavish party at his house celebrating his 85th birthday, he’s found in an out-of-the-way room in his massive, labyrinthine gothic mansion, with his throat cut, the bloodied dagger he allegedly used on himself lying nearby.

The local police detectives have made up their minds that it’s an open-and-shut suicide, end of story. But a mysterious private investigator, Benoit Blanc–played by Daniel Craig with a southern drawl that’s not quite as jarring as you’d think it would be–shows up to question the suspects. He eventually reveals that someone has anonymously hired him to look into the case, having left him an envelope stuffed with a thick wad of cash. Thus, it seems, someone suspects foul play.

The suspects consist of Harlan Thrombey’s thoroughly cruddy family: his widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who Harlan has discovered pilfering money from him under the guise of paying for his granddaughter’s college tuition; his son-in-law (Don Johnson), whose extramarital affair is found out by Harlan, and which Harlan threatens to expose to his daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis); Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who, much to Walt’s dismay, Harlan cuts out of his independent publishing house due to Walt’s incessant badgering that Harlan allow film and TV adaptations of Harlan’s work; and Harlan’s wayward grandson, Ransom (yes, he’s actually named Ransom, played by Chris Evans), who storms out of Harlan’s study in a huff during the party, following a loud and heated verbal altercation.

So–whodunnit? If it really was a homicide, that is, rather than the suicide it appears to be.

As I’ve mentioned above, Johnson tips off the audience fairly early as to what actually happened to Thrombey–or at least most of it: by way of a flashback, we are informed that his nurse, Marta (a dull, thankless role expertly brought to life by Ana de Armas), accidentally overdosed Harlan with morphine when she mistook a vial of the stuff for the regular medication that she usually follows up with a low-dose morphine chaser. She realizes her deadly error when she examines the labels on the vials after administering both medications. And the antidote for the morphine is missing from her nurse’s kit.

And what’s Harlan’s initial reaction? Is it, “What the f**k did you just do to me?” Why no. The film has established that Harlan and Marta have a close, grandfatherly/granddaughterly kind of relationship, so naturally, even Marta’s fatal error doesn’t stir up any anger towards her. Once he realizes that he’ll be dead from the OD by the time paramedics reach his secluded big house out in the country, Harlan decides to spend his last several minutes on this Earth–as his life is supposedly ebbing from his body with each passing moment–concocting an alibi for Marta so that nobody discovers that she accidentally caused his death. Because if anyone discovers that Marta was responsible for Harlan Thrombey’s death, her mother, an undocumented immigrant, would most certainly end up deported, as would Marta and the rest of her family, most likely.

Once Harlan concocts a scheme for Marta to secretly flee the scene of the crime undetected and he sends her on her way with his careful instructions, the old man then proceeds to slice his own throat with the dagger.

“Subverting expectations?” Sure. The immigration politics of the film, integrated into the script in such a clumsy and hamfisted fashion, completely subvert the audience’s expectation of a plot that fits into some sort of logic recognized by other human beings who are not so politically obsessed as Rian Johnson.

But wait, it gets better.

It turns out that Marta didn’t actually kill Harlan after all! Not even on accident. The real culprit, the grandson–the improbably named Ransom (Evans)–in an effort to kill his grandfather and frame Marta for it, swapped the vials of morphine and the other medication with the hope that Marta would end up overdosing Harlan with the morphine. Harlan, you see, has stipulated in his will that his entire estate be left to Marta, leaving nothing at all for his cruddy family. But Marta is such an expert nurse that she reflexively gave Harlan the correct medication after all, and the usual low, safe dosage of morphine, just based on the look of the medicine that was stored in each vial.

I wonder if the following scene will be included in the extended director’s cut:

HARLAN (after having just explained his plan to Marta that will help her sneak out of the house and evade detection, looking a little puzzled): By the way, are you sure you just accidentally gave me a 100mg overdose of morphine?

MARTA (teary and upset): I just happened to look at the labels after I injected you…so yes, I’m quite sure. Again, I’m so sorry!

HARLAN: And you said I have only 8-10 minutes to live?

MARTA: That’s right.

HARLAN: You told me that about, what, 3 or 4 minutes ago, would you say?

MARTA: Yes, I think that’s about right.

HARLAN: So I only have about, what, 5-6 minutes left to live…?

MARTA: Yes! Oh, I’m so sorry!

HARLAN: You know, it’s funny, but…I don’t feel anything yet. No dopiness or wooziness. Nothing at all. Shouldn’t I be feeling some symptoms of the overdose by now…?

(But Marta, overcome with emotion and desperation, has already fled. Harlan shrugs his shoulders, picks up a dagger, lies down on the divan, and slices his own throat.)

The actual murder that occurs in our story, as it turns out, is that of Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Fran knew of Ransom’s deception with the medication–or rather, attempted deception–and she was trying to give Marta a toxicology report from the medical examiner that showed there was no morphine overdose after all. By this point in the film, Ransom has been befriending Marta and misleading her into thinking that he’s an ally ever since the reading of Harlan’s will. Ransom, it turned out, killed Fran by overdosing her with morphine (or some other such drug).

And it’s Marta who coaxes a confession from Ransom by telling him, following a phone call she takes in Ransom’s presence, from a doctor where Fran is hospitalized, that Fran has actually survived. As soon as Ransom admits to having attacked Fran, Marta lets rip a stream of vomit. I forgot to mention–it’s established early in the film that Marta literally cannot tell a lie without becoming physically ill to the point of throwing up. The lie in this instance was that the phone call she took from the hospital was to inform her that Fran had actually died rather than survived.

It turns out that it was Ransom who secretly hired Blanc to look into the case, apparently with the hope that Blanc would conclude that Marta was responsible for Harlan’s death. There’s no indication that any of the other characters in the film ever suspect Marta, much less Blanc. And it’s clear throughout that the audience isn’t ever expected to, either.

If a director wants to present a political angle in his film, there’s nothing wrong with that. But at least strive for some artistic finesse, please. A second generation daughter of illegal immigrants who cannot tell a lie without becoming violently ill does not make for very believable storytelling, not because we’re supposed to assume that such a person must be dishonest, but because the character approaches a saintliness that matches no real live human being.

And Marta is a dull and boring character. The camera loves Ana de Armas, and her eyes convey multitudes. She is interesting to watch, with absolutely no thanks from Rian Johnson’s lifeless writing, and she rescues her role from terminal lameness.

There are some clever nods to the current political zeitgeist throughout the film. Walt’s teenaged son, who gives the impression of being constantly on Twitter harassing liberals and minorities from his smartphone, is referred to by another character as an “alt-right troll.” “What are you doing on Twitter today, swatting Syrian refugees?” Toni Colette asks him in one scene. And a scene during Harlan’s birthday party in which members of the family square off against each other over Trump and immigration is probably the most believable scene in the entire film.

But the sledgehammer dialogue at the end–good grief. Ransom’s “how-dare-you?” speech in which he rails at Marta for invading his family’s “ancestral home”–did Johnson lift that right off of an alt-right web site?

Don’t piss on my brain and tell me I’m being enlightened.

A Disappointing ‘Vice’

I finally got around to watching writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice on Amazon Prime. I’d been eagerly anticipating a viewing ever since the first trailer came out but just never had the chance to catch it at the theater. I was overjoyed when my wife and I had a couple of hours to spare for a movie at home and she suggested watching it. And so we watched it.

And what a massive disappointment.

Vice is a rambling, chaotic mess. It can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to tell about Dick Cheney. There isn’t anything revealed about him that is particularly surprising or insightful, other than perhaps his wayward youth. (Something he has in common with George W. Bush.) Cheney was apparently something of a ne’er-do-well who lived under constant threat of abandonment by his wife, Lynne. It all changed, at least according to the film, when he went to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., and he happened to hear a welcome speech by a U.S. congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. That was when Cheney decided that he was a Republican and wanted to spend the rest of his life in politics.

Some of the episodes of Cheney’s life that the film chooses to delve into seem a bit odd to me. Yes, it goes into the 9/11 attacks and his immediate push to at least partially blame it on Iraq, but it barely touches at all on his time as secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. Cheney was instrumental in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq the first time as well, and under just as patently false pretenses as those that were offered for the second Iraq war. One of the most egregious humdingers was the claim that classified U.S. intelligence surveillance photos revealed that hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s forces were amassed along the Saudi border. That’s what convinced the Saudis to allow their country to serve as a base for the U.S. and its allies, from which they would launch their “Operation: Desert Storm.” (Osama bin Laden later cited the continued U.S. military presence on Saudi soil after the war’s end as one of his main beefs against America.) No such surveillance imagery has been confirmed to this day. It was simply a lie.

It goes completely unmentioned in McKay’s film, however. Instead, he spends time on Cheney’s efforts, in collaboration with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, to roll back the estate tax. I don’t know, if I were making a movie about Dick Cheney, I would find Cheney’s manipulating the country into a war far more dramatically compelling than a subplot about tax policy, but maybe that’s just me.

McKay deserves some credit for at least making some attempt to humanize his subject, such as Cheney and his family grappling with his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian at a time when social acceptance of homosexuals was not nearly as common as it is today, not to mention the political implications for Cheney in light of his conservative constituency. The film depicts him as being rather forward-thinking and unconditionally accepting of Mary as she is, and McKay understandably sees this as one of his subject’s redeeming qualities. But it seems almost tacked onto the film as an afterthought, as though somebody forced McKay to mention at least one thing about Dick Cheney that he found positive.

As far as Christian Bale’s performance is concerned, it looks like he got an Oscar nomination for doing an excellent Dick Cheney impression. 

Any good biographical film should seek to understand its subject, to try to find out what makes him tick, how he sees the world and his place in it. I can’t say that I gleaned anything of the sort from Vice.