Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Jesse Plemons
Running time: 132 minutes
Perhaps the only thing more striking than seeing Christian Bale playing former US Vice President Dick Cheney, is seeing Adam McKay’s name front and centre of a simmering, say-it-how-I-want political satire.
The writer/director who only five years ago had wrapped up Anchorman 2 – and before that, other Will Ferrell-led comedies such as The Other Guys (2010), Step Brothers (2008) and the first Anchorman (2004) – has quickly become one of the most intriguing political voices in modern American filmmaking. His 2015 film, The Big Short, marked McKay’s first foray into something a little more serious, but from testicles on drum kits to ballsing-up the US housing bubble, McKay has never been afraid to go a little below the belt.
And his latest proves to be no exception. Vice follows the rise of the infamously mysterious, stoic Dick Cheney (Bale) from Yale dropout to US VP during the time of the Bush (Rockwell) Administration – a period shrouded thick in controversy. But despite having his face plastered on every billboard, every poster and the side of every London bus, this is far from the in-depth Cheney character-study the film’s PR team might have you believe. Rather, Vice is a film that broadens its gaze to that of America’s political foundations – everything from Nixon to Trump – pulling very few punches as it lands blows on the system’s various loopholes, the exploitation of such ambiguities and the many fingers yanking at the strings of power.
This is hardly a dry slog through American political history 101, however. Just as he jazzed up the journey toward the calamitous 2007/08 financial crisis, McKay racks through names, places and faces at hyper-speed while peppering his story with a multitude of gimmicky bells and whistles – fourth-wall breaking; alternate timelines; even re-hashing entire exchanges with a Shakespearian twang – that, with varying degrees of success, pump the film with so much postmodern playfulness, it would likely fill The Pentagon twice over.
Under the tentative watch of many other filmmakers, the temptation might be to play this one a little closer to the fence. McKay, however, has no time for subtlety or impartiality and instead hangs his anti-Republican punch bag in plain sight and invites all liberals to take a swing. The result is likely to prove hugely divisive.
But irrespective of Vice’s reception, the boldness of its creator is something to be admired. There are, of course, times when the gags and all-too-obvious visual metaphors fall distinctly short, and the film begins to feel overbearingly self-indulgent. Equally, Vice’s propensity to divert along numerous tangents, incessant on breaking absolutely everything down in layman’s terms, gives Vice a noticeably disjointed feel and one that lacks any of the fluid slickness that defined McKay’s previous work. But creativity comes in many shapes and sizes – in this case, a balding 77-year old with a gut and thousands of bodies on him.
And as Cheney, Bale is scintillating. Even under the pounds and prosthetics, he nails even the most intricate of Cheney’s idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. Even when McKay allows Cheney fleeting moments of what we might call compassion, Bale is wholly convincing as a growling, scheming, under-the-radar figure whose true motivations are always hidden from those around him. Elsewhere, Amy Adams matches Bale as Lynne Cheney, who’s role exceeds far beyond that of the archetypal politician’s wife, meanwhile Sam Rockwell gives his best impersonation of the rather clueless George W..
But, Vice is Bale’s film, and between him and it’s director, one that hands us Cheney on a plate. As a mid-credits scene can attest to, it’s how we digest him that Vice is most interested in.
Spearheaded by an exceedingly good Christian Bale, Vice is a flawed but ambitious excavation of America’s modern political system and one of its most notorious yet equally enigmatic figures.