Film Editor Todd Waugh Ambridge finds Adam McKay strikes oil with latest political satire, starring Christian Bale as the titular Vice President Dick Cheney
The biopic is a genre that has, in recent years, become increasingly associated with the words ‘artistic licence’. David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) redefined popular biopics from faithful, by-the-book adaptations of real-life stories to dramatic, stylish and original films in their own right. Writer-director Adam McKay – who made his name behind the camera of such Will Ferrell comedies as Anchorman and Step Brothers – again challenged the genre in 2015 with The Big Short; a sort-of biopic sort-of satire about the 2007 global financial crisis and those who capitalised upon it. McKay’s fierce liberalism has now turned from the economic world to the political: Vice is both a biography of US Vice President Dick Cheney and an exploration of the malleability of executive power.
Vice is a film in two halves. The first shows how Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) went from being a college dropout to the most powerful VPOTUS in history, while the second displays how his tenure in office was characterised by dangerous, controlling politics that shaped the Bush administration, the war on terror and, thus, the geopolitical attitudes of the entire world. The film has been divisive, with some critics calling into question its accuracy; but it is important to remember this is a satirical piece more concerned with exploring ideas thoughtfully and humorously than portraying the exact truth of every situation.
Christian Bale plays Cheney at various points in his life in a double-take transformation not unlike Gary Oldman’s in 2017’s Darkest Hour. Cheney was an infamously private man and Bale plays this with sharp subtlety, which cracks slightly in a scarce few moments of genuine emotion, illuminating the multifaceted man beneath. Amy Adams plays Lynne Cheney with her usual skill, Steve Carell makes an impression as the chauvinistic Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, but it is the hilarious Sam Rockwell – playing the naïve, juvenile President Bush – that emerges as the second-in-command of McKay’s all-star cast. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Vice is hilarious. Apart from one cringe-worthy Donald Trump reference, every joke lands spot-on. McKay has previously proven himself a master of witty dialogue, but he uses a whole host of cinematic techniques here to grab a laugh. One particularly jarring sequence around the middle of the film is side-splitting to say the least, and doesn’t use a single spoken word. Suffice to say, Adam McKay has come a long way since Step Brothers.
At times, Vice feels like a spiritual sequel to The Big Short. That film broke the fourth wall often with cameo roles in order to explain complex economic concepts. Similar absurd or otherwise unconventional techniques are utilised here: news footage is spliced throughout, the film pauses to explain political jargon and there is even a particular scene that abruptly enters Shakespearean territory. McKay does not shy away from being bold; his liberalist satire is rarely tactful and never apologetic. At one point, Cheney uses his power to out an undercover CIA agent as retribution for a damning newspaper article against him by said agent’s husband. This outing actually happened in real life, but it being Cheney’s doing is pure speculation on the filmmaker’s behalf; yet he is not afraid or ashamed to display it as fact. Some critics have taken issue with this, but it is my belief that a film should stand on its own, devoid even from the true story it is adapting. And ultimately, this is a story of how a single person can shape the future of the world – and a story of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Surely this is a story pertinent to modern times, no matter where on the political spectrum you fall.
VERDICT: Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell and Amy Adams give some career-winning performances; but writer-director Adam McKay is the true star of this film. While he seemingly takes some serious liberties with his storytelling, the truth he presents is a damning critique of a particularly dark era of American politics and foreign policy. At times, Vice is pure liberal propaganda – and the rating below will show you this is not a complaint.