Adam McKay’s (The Big Short) political comedy-drama biopic is an American tragedy. Your opinion of Vice will likely be decided depending on which side of history you support: some will see this as a tasteless satire set around some of the darkest moments in recent US history, others will see it as a movie the US government deserves.
Christian Bale totally transforms as the slobby, conniving Vice President Dick Cheney. The film’s simple narrative follows his personal evolution, beginning in Wyoming where a young Cheney’s thrown out of Yale for his boozy, brutish behaviour. One telling off from the future Mrs Lynne Cheney (a great but underused Amy Adams) and Dick’s on the straight and narrow, focused on working his way up from being a White House intern to the puppetmaster of Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, playing him as a Machiavellian yokel).
Eventually, we see a spritelier Christian Bale (Batman Begins), looking more like the actor we recognise, become the scheming politician we all know. The changes are subtle, being a masterclass in how to use prosthetics without losing performance. The story blurs through the uninteresting non-political Clinton years with Cheney making money as an oil CEO while breeding golden retrievers. The way characters fall in and out of the script is very similar to the way they fall in and out of political favour.
It’s not until Sam Rockwell turns up with a suitably unflattering portrayal of the ranch-owning, burger-chomping George W. Bush does the movie really kick into gear. “Dubya” essentially hands power to Cheney and friends and unwittingly changes the course of history. Whether you deem the portion of Vice dedicated to the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 and subsequent Iraq war appropriate will depend on your own personal beliefs.
Vice offers a PowerPoint biopic of Dick Cheney full of fast-paced montages, non-linear clips, and a Michael Moore-style voiceover (by Jesse Plemons). The highly stylized inserts - ranging from real clips of the Iraq war to fish being reeled in on a hook - here work better than in The Big Short. McKay’s meta gags and fantasy scenes are far more effective in Vice, too, even if a moment of Shakespearian dialogue between Dick and Lynne goes on a little too long.
The reason Vice works so well is down to Christian Bale’s performance as Cheney. His interpretation of the former “Veep” is often slumped and silent, only reacting when reaching for a confidential document or a plate of pastries. Bale is one of the few actors who does his best work when it’s being internal; he plays Cheney like a silent assassin waiting for those on the front row to fall before he makes his move. Unlike the fiery republics around him, Cheney is dry, deceptively dull, and imperceptibly passive aggressive.
McKay isn’t subtle in connecting this era of politics to President Donald J. Trump. He links the uprising of skewed political thinktanks and Conservative media-yelling propaganda to the early work of Cheney. Thanks to the marketing campaign, Vice will be viewed mostly by liberals or right-wing audiences expecting to hate it—so it’s preaching to the choir. The positive note is that the butt of the joke is never those who lost their lives to the various wars fought during the Bush Jr. years, never to the White House employees who were pawns in Cheney’s games, and never to the Americans who fell for the act. This film solely wants audiences to see the malice of Dick Cheney, almost wiping clean the hands of the Bushes, Ronald Reagan, and Rumsfeld.
Vice never goes beneath the surface of what made Dick Cheney tick, however. It’s full of familiar anecdotes (like the hunting accident, his obsession with fly-fishing, his serial heart attacks brushed off like muscle cramps), and there’s even a slight tenderness in him through in his love for his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill)—which encouraged him to refuse to campaign directly against gay marriage.
As fun as Vice is to watch, it feels less like a rounded biopic and more like a feature-length Saturday Night Live sketch - albeit a very good one. We’ll perhaps never get the answer to “who is Dick Cheney?” and what happened during his life to make his beliefs in adulthood so extreme… but McKay’s movie never really wants to.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Adam McKay.
starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill & Jesse Plemons.