George Glover reviews the award-winning satirical biopic on US Vice President Dick Cheney.
Vice offers an alternate portrayal of the Bush administration, sidelining George W. (Sam Rockwell) in favour of his quiet, manipulative, Machiavellian Vice President Dick Cheney (an unrecognisable Christian Bale). Adam McKay’s film races through the last fifty years to show how Cheney utilised lawyers, journalists, and oil magnates to amass bureaucratic power and become the most powerful ‘Vice’ in American history.
After making his name with comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, McKay earned newfound respect in 2015 with The Big Short, which depicted the events leading up to the global financial crisis. Instead of condemning greedy bankers, Vice takes aim at bureaucratic career politicians – particularly Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (in one notable early scene, Steve Carell’s Rumsfeld is reduced to hysteria when Cheney asks him ‘what do we believe?’). Still, there are many similarities between the two films, most obviously McKay’s zany, fast-paced directing style and an examination of how the actions of the film’s antagonists affect ordinary people. Despite Vice’s comedic tone, the film ends with the sobering reminder that 600,000 civilians died as a result of Bush and Cheney’s invasion of Iraq.
Vice recently received eight Oscar nominations, and this critic anticipates Academy Awards for Best Actor (Bale), Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin), and Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dehaney). The film’s key strength is its cast – Bale has earned much praise for his portrayal of Cheney, and Rockwell and Carell are also excellent in more light-hearted portrayals of Bush and ‘Rummy’. Amy Adams is superb as Cheney’s wife Lynne, who emerges as Wyoming’s answer to Lady Macbeth. The humourless Lynne particularly shows her cold-heartedness in a side-plot centred on her daughter Mary’s sexuality.
There are a few problems with Vice’s narrative, which sometimes detract from the viewing experience. In attempting to cover such breadth of subject matter without creating confusion, oversimplification is inevitable. Several critics have accused Vice of historical inaccuracy, particularly problematic when the film begins with a disclaimer that McKay et al. “did our f***ing best” to tell the truth. McKay’s insistence on mixing black comedy and global tragedies leads at times to an uneven tone; for a Londoner, the scene depicting a Piccadilly line train carriage after the 7/7 bombings was particularly unsettling. Lastly, Vice’s obvious hatred of Cheney (Bale thanked Satan for inspiring him in his Golden Globes acceptance speech) can be exhausting for viewers. In The Big Short, Bale and Carell portrayed likable outsiders, but there is not a single redeemable character in Vice.
But when the jokes work – and they almost always do – McKay shows his feel for both base and sophisticated comedy. Vice is a subversive film that will entertain audiences while encouraging them to think about profound political issues at the same time. Bale and McKay combine to create a loathsome Cheney and place him at the centre of the ills of 21st century politics. Indeed, considering the unrepentant hatred for its subject, comedy specialist McKay missed a huge opportunity in naming this biopic: instead of Vice, he should have just called it Dick.
Vice is currently out in UK cinemas. Check out its trailer below: