If you like your satire biting and your political movies angry, Vice is for you: anchored by an immense Christian Bale transformation and some sharp writing.
Dick Cheney (Bale) rises from drunken dropout to the upper echelons of the Republican Party, propelled by ambitious wife Lynn (Amy Adams). Working first with the equally malevolent Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Cheney is ten tempted back to politics by George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) as his vice president in 2000 – a role Cheney redefined, and the implications of which resound today.
Director and writer Adam McKay (of The Big Short, but also the Anchorman films, Talledega Nights, Stepbrothers and The Other Guys) strengthens his position as the foremost political-comedic voice in US cinema, fiercely and at times shockingly confronting the audience with cheney’s manipulative, devious career.
McKay won an Oscar for The Big Short’s sparky, irreverent script, and here achieves similar success by turning his (left leaning) political gaze onto a man called, and who began calling himself, the Darth Vader of US politics. We are allowed to see the family and love behind the bastard – it’s not a complete hatchet job – but this only strengthens your disgust at his hypocrisy.
Working with the frenetic editing of Hank Corwin, McKay crafts an uncomfortably non linear movie, with flashbacks and time jumps, and almost subliminal flashes from events during the 2000s and 2010s – all linked back to Cheney’s Machiavellian undertakings. This is likely to put some off, simply because it becomes visually overwhelming – for me though, it emboldened the point being made and was a distinctive visual choice.
While ostensibly trying to be satirical and critical, McKay’s burning rage at Cheney’s impact – globally, let alone the US – seethes through, nonesomuch as towards the end, when it becomes a crescendo. Corwin’s interspersing of random asides and TV clips, alongside still images, hammers home the consequences of Cheney’s actions, while at the same time allowing for hearty laughs at his (and others’) expense.
If you’re a died in the wool Republican, it’s likely this film will piss you off: McKay knows that, my UK audience certainly knew that and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the film’s divisive critical reaction is largely down to that. What this does is mark very clearly – it’s almost shouting – just how influential, mostly for the very worse, Cheney was for the 21st century so far (and might continue to be).
For many, this will be too political, and it’s certainly worth warning that you’ll see scenes of terrorism, death, torture, protest and carnage, both staged and real. McKay’s use of title screens also fires home the very serious points beyond the laughter, particularly the role Cheney played in the ongoing scourge of Islamic fundamentalism and western military presence in the Middle East.
This is all backed up by a scattershot score from Nicholas Britell, whose best work twists those often imposing, majestic horns used for presidential scenes in Hollywood ironically and darkly to illuminate Cheney’s growing control. Greig Fraser’s lighting and camera use is also impactful, Cheney’s younger life in the 60s through to the 80s bathed in a dewey, sun kissed tinge, before the greys, whites and fusty browns of Washington emerge. The 2000s meanwhile are almost standard definition, a bleached and handheld camcorder look setting it apart.
Such a film depend on its central performer – I’ve been saying that a lot, but it’s true. Bale is however quite frankly astonishingly transformed, a dark mirror image of Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. The Welsh actor summons a deeper voice and dons spectacular prosthetics to become Cheney – paunch, liver spots and all, but is most effective with Cheney’s unnatural poise and stillness – appearing almost introvertedly quiet, but adapting and scheming through shark like eyes.
His adeptness with comedy (not something you expect from Bale and his intensity) is also strong in some diversionary, fantasy scenes. Bale’s unnervingly steely gazes and monotone, matter of fact voice combine with the make up for a strong, solid central performance: look out for this at the Oscars, especially given it’s won a Golden Globe.
Amy Adams is also excellent, playing quite a different role and as a consequence coming across very differently (I forgot it was her at times, in a good way!). Lynne is more driven and politically motivated than Dick, Adams evoking this conservative woman’s sharp, malevolent focus on power and dragging her husband up to where she feels he (and she) belong.
Jesse Plemons’ idiosyncratic narration offers a great deal of laughs while also providing exposition and explanations, something McKay successfully did with famous cameos in The Big Short explaining the complicated financial matters. Plemon’s bloke next door, unfussed delivery is perfectly balanced between discourse and dry wit, and his onscreen appearances are surprising – it’s almost a mystery to be solved, very different for a biopic.
Carell’s oleaginous Rumsfeld is a nice return to comedy for the actor, whose distinctive voice and high pitched laugh are muted but everpresent, as he channels an irreverent, devil-may-care attitude through the king of military hawks. Sam Rockwell appears too rarely as the world’s (previously) most mocked US president, appearing in subtle prosthetics and drawling through a mocking portrayal of the dumbarse son who embodied nepotism on a global scale.
I wish we’d had more of him because Rockwell’s great ability to make absolute shits interesting (see Three Billboards…) might have been great here, scenes with Bale particularly memorable as Cheney runs rings around Bush and essentially uses him as a puppet. Tyler Perry’s considered approach to Colin Powell is also notable, while mini cameos from Eddie Marsan, Alfred Molina and Naomi Watts add a rogue’s gallery feel.
Those of a political persuasion will either enjoy or be infuriated (or both) by Vice. For everyone else, it’s a chance to see a strong lead performance from Bale, and to learn about how Cheney essentially masterminded modern geopolitics and the War on Terror, and all the shit that has followed since.