Whilst the political landscape all over the world confused and upset people in equal measure, Adam McKay (Stepbrothers and The Big Short) decided the time was right to make a film about confusing and upsetting politics. It is hardly the feel good movie to take you out of the political hell we are in right now, but it is a nice reminder that politics has always been terrible.
Vice focuses on Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who from 2001 to 2009 served as George W Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) vice president, and as the film explores, was the driving force behind Bush’s most sickening policies. The film doesn’t present Cheney as an evil genius, but instead an opportunist. We first meet Cheney in 1963 getting arrested for drunk driving in his home town in Wyoming, and witnessing his home life with wife Lynne (A Dependably good Amy Adams) it is clear he is a disappointment to her. He tells her he will never let her down again. This is the birth of Dick Cheney.
Cheney starts in politics as a Congress intern, choosing to be a Republican because that’s who the bombastic Donald Rumsfeld (A grating Steve Carrell) worked for. We see Rumsfeld hold power in the house and the Republican party, and the next hour or so focuses on Cheney leveraging this power to raise his own profile, leading to a seat in congress. After a successful career, including stints as White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense, Cheney leaves politics behind to manage Oil firm Halliburton. This is where we would love the film to end and McKay uses this collective yearning to frame a portrait of a content man fishing with his family. Joyful music plays and the credits rise before a record scratch hits; Cheney isn’t finished yet. The rest of the film concerns his time working as Vice President, and is easily the most distressing and nauseating part of the film.
The film stays light though, and gags like the faux credits populate the film leading to an often frantic and jarring mess. McKay used tactics like this in his last film, The Big Short, and even though some of those moments weren’t effective (Margot Robbie in a bath), that film worked better overall because at least it had a main focus. In Vice however, McKay’s motives are unclear. As a tool to educate about the depravities of Cheney and American politics the film is effective, although slightly too fast and loose with the truth. But as a piece of entertainment it is too messy to fully work.
The acting is fantastic, with Bale embodying a “charisma-free asshole” as he quipped in his Golden Globes speech. But a controlled lack of charisma whilst impressive doesn’t exactly entertain or bring the audience into his inner world. It isn’t helped by the energy of Rockwell and Carrell around him, and Adams one of the best and most consistent actors working does all she can with Lynne, but is ultimately wasted in a half-hearted attempt at a Lady Macbeth pastiche.
Vice is a great piece of education, but doesn’t quite work as a piece of entertainment or a portrait of one of the most powerful men of the last 100 years. It’s neither comedy, nor drama and it’s difficult to leave the film without a sense that it’s a wasted opportunity to create a damning portrait of one of this centuries greatest villains.