In an unusual occurrence, it’s rare to find a film that starts with an apology. Telling the untold biopic on Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) aka ‘the most secretive man in US politics’ must have been a tough challenge for director Adam McKay. “We tried our f*cking best” it boasts, bringing out a notable chuckle and yet, it’s a challenge not done in vain.
It’s still somewhat surprising that a film like Vice has come out of the mindset of Adam McKay. We’re talking about the same guy who gave us Anchorman and Step Brothers! A lot of the time, his improvisational comedy can be a hit or miss – even Vice to a certain extent is a reflection of that criticism with its jarring, Family Guy style cutaways of exposition commentary. But like his previous film The Big Short, McKay has found a niche perspective involving conventional seriousness of its subject matter (with all of its multi-layered complexities) by condensing it down to an unconventional, idiosyncratic narrative that is part comedic, part surreal and part horrifying. It’s an evolving feat for a director which surprisingly works well for Vice. It’s an uncompromising, unforgiving, unremorseful and damning portrait on the former Vice President.
In some respects, Vice is a ‘less-dense’ version of The Big Short. It doesn’t overwhelm you with terminology that would easily go over someone’s head (or bankers for that matter regarding the 2008 financial crash). But what it does do is create a structural template in executing its narrative. As a complementary piece, Vice is very much a glamorised, pop-culture film, littered with iconography that cements a past not long ago experienced yet have a relatable edge to see the parallel and contextualised aftermath with our current political system.
It takes liberties with its dramatisations, inserting convenient political characters in the same ‘connect the dots’ circles of discussion or influence. But it effectively dismantles the fabled notion of ‘The American Dream’ as an uncompromising look at the fundamental structures of American society with its laws and constitutions and its ease of use manipulations to undo the fabric seams that hold it together – all in the name of self-interest, profit and power.
Hitting a raw nerve and taking a page of Scorsese’s playbook (thinking of The Wolf of Wall Street in particular), McKay doesn’t use Vice to judge his protagonists. It’s all about the observance, the arrogance, the double standards and the methodology. The ultimate judgement comes from what we take away as a viewer. There are pockets of morality, but it’s never displayed from its lead cast. Like a subliminal message, it’s the fluxing juxtaposed of images between the policy and the aftermath.
Which kindly brings the focus on its titular character. Christian Bale is no stranger to extreme transformations for his roles, but this could be his most impressive since The Machinist and The Fighter, given the incredible mannerisms and spot-on dialect impersonation that it’s easy to lose sight of the actor and believe unequivocally he’s become the man himself. It’s downright scary. That’s partly down to how Bale engages the role. He’s uncharismatic, mostly quiet, an omnipresent and ruthless devil that carefully calculates his moves alongside his loyal enablers such as Donald Rumsfeld (played brilliantly by Steve Carell). There’s nothing appealing or endearing about his character. There’s the occasional, deadpan ‘running gag’ about the number of heart attacks he had during his life whilst ‘serving the interests of the people’. Yet it’s the striking physicality that speaks volumes. In one particular scene, Bale as Chaney stands in the darkened, shadowy doorway of the Oval Office, silently prophesying over his career achievements and the looming darkness that his imposing power will grant him.
Despite the frequent changes in tones, Vice plays its part in contextualising his involvement that spans fifty years and several presidential administrations. It’s an intriguing watch that reinforces his mythos as a mysterious, under the radar figure with opportunist credentials that can have various political offices like a crossbreed between a snake and a fly on the wall. Christian Bale will take most of the plaudits without doing anything that screams ‘Oscar-bait’, dramatic moment. His performance is flawlessly measured from beginning to end. Having said that, it’s also incredibly hard to overlook the contribution that Amy ‘can’t do no wrong’ Adams brings to the table.
What has always been impressive about Amy Adams as an actress is how she can convey so much about her characters with minimum screen time. On the surface, Lynne Cheney appears as the traditional Republican, expected to sit on the sidelines and be a dutiful wife. Mirroring her real-life counterpart, Adams performance wields a commanding authority, pushing her husband in the direction of power but represents a self-empowerment that reinforces conservative values. It says a lot when she can view Reagan’s resignation after the Watergate scandal as an attack on the Presidency, overlooking his obvious misdemeanours in office.
As much as Vice is a political indulgence, it somehow encapsulates a love story, but not from the rationalised comfort we’re used to. Sure, there’s loyalty, devotion and preservation of the family unit (which becomes a noteworthy challenge when Mary Cheney (played by Alison Pill) announces she’s gay in one significant scene). However, the longer the film divulges into its subject, that threshold between values and lust for power erodes away.
It doesn’t escape some notable downsides. Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of George W. Bush is not on-screen long enough to make a lasting impact, reduced to a caricature. There’s an understandable contrast in the logic – Cheney is the shadow puppet master, pulling the dark strings on American foreign and domestic policies in comparison to the face of the administration (think Iron Man 3 with Guy Pearce’s Killian and Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin/Trevor). But there’s a lenient, satirist nature when it comes to political figures where the jokes ultimately lessen the impact of their complicity. It’s the same criticism which outlays the recent Channel 4/HBO film Brexit: The Uncivil War.
Dominic Cummings is given a ‘Sherlock’ edge flirting between deluded prominence and genius svengali. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are depicted as a Laurel and Hardy pairing of equal buffoonery. Nigel Farage looked like a low-rent Del Boy waiting to sell a dodgy used car to you. Yes, these are fictionalised accounts, dramatised with an entertaining vigour for our benefit, but it leads to a problematic debate regarding fact vs. fiction and re-writing an ‘impressionable’ history. Vice’s depiction of Cheney is a ‘no-holds-barred’ examination where he doesn’t carry an ounce of redemption, remorse or regret, believing (even to this day) everything he did was ‘right’ for the country but with a self-hypocritical narcissism to defend his abuse of power. The same illustration or excuse is not afforded to Bush.
Furthermore, there’s a scene which returns to the criticism of the jarring escapades that afflicts McKay’s work, a scene which involves its lead stars quoting Shakespeare as a bedtime confessional of power between lovers. However well intended, it momentarily stops the film dead evoking memories of Margot Robbie in a bathtub from The Big Short where the importance of its context is lost due to an absurd situation.
Depending on your outlook will ultimately determine the enjoyment of Vice. If you can accept the tonal shifts with its Hollywood filmmaking conventions, Jesse Plemon’s narration and fourth wall breaks, then Vice is a wildly inventive biopic. Sure, its execution borders on overkill with its stylistic interpretations (especially it’s on the nose, Marvel-esque mid-end credit scene). There’s no doubt the flaws are there on the screen. But Vice is a film that seemingly treads a fine line between boring safety and falling headfirst off a cliff. Despite its distinct lean to the cliff, thanks to McKay’s brazenness and the spot-on performances by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, they carry the necessary conviction and restraint to bring the balance and reinforce the bigger picture.
Similar to the effectiveness of The Big Short, Vice still hits home on its principal outcome – however entertaining it is, that laughter is a nervous and uncomfortable recognition on the state of the political world today.
With that in mind, I rather watch this than a simplistic, paint-by-the-numbers biopic.
Vice is in UK cinemas from Friday January 25th.