Already a critical darling and favourite of the award season, Adam McKay’s new film Vice tackles an unlikely subject, with perhaps an even more unlikely lead actor. In the film out Boxing Day, Christian Bale transforms himself into Former US Vice President Dick Cheney, as McKay – who also wrote and produced the film – delves through time into the series of events that led to Cheney becoming the most powerful VP in American history; and the decisions he made that changed the course of domestic US politics and the state of the world.
In many ways, the film is a spiritual successor to McKay’s critically acclaimed hit The Big Short. Like his predecessor, the film is big on style, uses humour to delve into serious and otherwise rather depressing issues, and in some ways, the film fills in the gaps in what was first highlighted in Short.
As in Short, there’s a lot of content to remind us that everything we’re seeing can, and probably is, happening again. A cut of Former President Reagan’s “Make America Great Again” moment being the most on the nose, and the short scene at the end putting the film in context of the modern discourse. Perhaps an all-too-bleak picture.
Bleak or not, there’s a lot to praise about the film. The score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) has moments of brilliance, while oft sitting unassumingly in the background. The editing by Hank Corwin, particularly in the first half, is inspired – a rapid fire of memories jumping through times and styles, and an “ending” which cleverly plays with both filmic humour and the assumption you know where the story leads. Indeed a lot of the film does assume some level of knowledge of the Bush/Cheney years to fully grasp; so some Australian filmgoers may not pick up on some of the details shown in the film. But it should do little to take away from the enjoyment.
Pacing in the second half doesn’t quite match the first; things slowing down to look at the crucial years 2000-2005. It has a strange effect of making the film both feel 15 minutes too long, and 15 minutes too short – seemingly avoiding some of the details the film may have welcomed, while also dragging its feet in comparison to the rapid fire first half. Some shots in the trailer but not in the film indicate there may be a longer cut out there in the future. At 132 minutes (give or take), the film is certainly at a comfortable volume as it is.
But it’s in the performances that the film truly shines. Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld proves as entertaining a performance as it is an inspired casting choice, while Tyler Perry’s Colin Powell adds a careful amount of humanity to one of the biggest internal critics of the War in Iraq. A war that even Hillary Clinton supported, as the film reminds us; brainwashed by the Cheney campaign as the rest of them. I’d argue the film never straight out says “he did it for the oil money”, but it lays everything out for you to make it clear that the intent was there.
I couldn’t help but get a sense of déjà vu when watching Sam Rockwell play George W Bush; those playing at home may remember his Hitchhiker Guide character Zaphod Beeblebrox as having been inspired by the 43rd US President. It’s a strong performance, though the film does little to show him as any more than Dick Cheney’s puppet – which is the story we were all told at the time, so little is of surprise there. Still, it’s not the character that enjoys an arch. This film is all about Dick.
And indeed, Bale shines in the role, aided by some excellent makeup that should see the actor both win the Oscar for the performance, and his makeup team take home one for their work too. It’s the sort of showing that serves as satisfying bait come Award season; but you can guarantee no voter would have ever expected to be awarding an actor for his portrayal of a man many consider to be a war criminal – a view this film doesn’t shy away from reinforcing. This said, while the film does a great job at telling the what – with some assumed knowledge – McKay doesn’t purport to dwell on the why. As an opening title card says – this is one of the most secretive men in history, so while they can’t guarantee this is exactly how everything happened, they promised to have “tried their fucking best”.
Like The Big Short before it, McKay uses a series of devices and filmmaking styles to make the film engaging and oft laugh out loud. A difficult task when telling the story of one of the most divisive characters of our time; even going as far as humanising him, especially in some scenes with his daughters. And those who expect a liberal agenda probably won’t be disappointed, but it’s comically self-aware of its stance.
Vice is an engaging, entertaining and beautifully performed film of a man who doesn’t deserve a biopic; but McKay has nonetheless presented a story that needed to be told. Even more poignant in the shadow of Bush Sr’s death, and the building legacy of Trump – it would be fair to argue the film serves as a warning of history repeating itself. But I feel at this stage, he’s just reminding his audience of what they already know – an audience who won’t leave the cinema with a changed viewpoint, but there may be a healthy increase of dread or even disgust in lieu.
Yep, this is America. And it’s not a good feeling.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Vice is in cinemas Boxing Day.