Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell
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Christian Bale is great in Vice. Or at least, he would be, if you could even notice it was him. The actor is unrecognisable as Dick Cheney, the former Vice President of the United States of America, and for every second he’s on screen, Adam McKay’s comedic follow-up to The Big Short carries a heft that’s deceptively serious.
The film charts the career of Cheney, from Yale University (he dropped out) to becoming an intern for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in the White House. That position gave him a grounding in politics, and a taste for power, and, after a stint at an oil company, he finds himself asked to be the running mate to a young George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), which puts him in a position of executive authority when 9/11 happens, and enables he and Rumsfeld to preside over the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s a long, winding road through a complex political system, from his local hustings to become Congressman for Wyoming to the semantics of the US Constitution, and McKay offsets those intricate or dull details by taking a leaf out of The Big Short’s playbook: cutaways range from tongue-in-cheek news reports and a faux-Shakespearean interlude to torrents of swearing and all manner of fourth-wall-breaking devices. While some of these are genuinely entertaining – an end credits sequence is laugh-out-loud funny – they don’t fit into a pseudo-biopic as well as they did a financial satire, and the result mostly comes across as smug, patronising and self-indulgent.
But underneath that posturing surface beats a more clinical, critical pulse, and when McKay leans into that without the post-modern flourishes, Vice is a compelling, accomplished character assassination. That’s partly thanks to the performances, with Bale’s superbly committed turn as the secretive, hard-to-read Cheney supported by a typically remarkable Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, a Lady Macbeth-type spouse who is responsible for kick-starting his career. The question of how to support their daughters, one of whom (Mary – the always-excellent Alison Pill) is gay and one of whom (Liz – Lily Rabe) doesn’t approve – is genuinely involving and convincing. (Not all of the casting works, though, with Sam Rockwell coming across as an SNL parody of Bush, and Carell not as well made up as Bale to look like Rumsfeld.)
It’s also partly thanks to McKay’s shrewdly constructed argument, which traces a through-line from Cheney’s behaviour, actions and attitudes towards the US Presidency to Donald Trump-era America, piecing together the small steps that paved the way for the modern state of the nation. It’s a deftly observed commentary, one that’s given a scathing voice by a narrator who winds up shining a light on one blunt fact: this is the story of a man without a heart. If it only Vice had the confidence to keep things as simple as that.