It still seems a shock that the man who wrote and directed Step Brothers is now an Oscar-winning screenwriter following the success of 2015’s The Big Short, but director Adam McKay continues his political crusade with a biting, cynical biopic about the life of the most powerful (Vice)-President in US history, Dick Cheney.
Choosing to focus on Cheney’s rise from an unassuming, low-level Washington bureaucrat to the man who masterminded America’s involvement in the Iraq War whilst serving as George W. Bush’s Vice-President, Vice absolutely pulls no punches with its predetermined assessment of Cheney’s culpability for a host of political wrongdoings throughout his time in government.
Often films of such a satirical yet hugely critical nature suffer from political heavy-handedness, with Vice being no exception. In his attempts to indict Cheney, amongst other American political heavyweights like Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush Sr., all whilst making a mockery of the Bush Jr. administration so wilfully swayed by Cheney’s influence, this politically-charged film suffers from a messy plot. The film is somewhat jarring in the way it flits between time periods, at one time focusing on Cheney’s days as a drunk college dropout then suddenly finding himself in a favourable position as part of the Nixon administration, with no real development. Fortunately, McKay was still able to ensure the film’s relevance was maintained whilst painting a portrait of the cold-hearted, villainous Cheney, without losing these crucial elements to a muddled story.
In terms of technical achievements, Vice doesn’t particularly stand-out with regards to camerawork, sound or directing, with McKay rather surprisingly receiving a Best Director nomination from the Academy. However, he was more than deserving of his Best Original Screenplay nomination, with a sharp, scathing script that brings an irresistible blend of viciousness and humour to the film. Vice’s greatest technical asset is undoubtedly found within its genius use of editing, weaving together the words and actions of Cheney with a slew of interlinked imagery, often depicting the consequences of his actions in a brutal, engaging manner that oozes an impressive level of fluidity.
Though the use of a narrator (Jesse Plemons) seems initially an unnecessary and puzzling addition to the plot that tends to break up engaging moments of the story, as the film develops and reaches its rage-inducing climax, its part in the plot becomes evident and proves to be a surprising masterstroke in reinforcing the film’s unwavering anti-Cheney message.
Without question, however, the film’s major draw was the latest in a career of chameleonic transformations by Christian Bale. With a great deal of Vice’s publicity revolving around Bale’s significant weight gain in order to accurately portray Cheney, accompanied by astonishing hair and makeup work, Bale completely personifies his dead-eyed ruthlessness that has resulted in an outstanding, arguably career-best performance which has deservedly garnered him in a Best Actor nomination, with him seemingly being neck-and-neck with Rami Malek to actually go on and win the prize. The cold, soulless gaze Bale gives to Cheney only seems to enhance his unquestionable immorality and the way he captured Cheney’s voice and mannerisms so perfectly mean the viewer hangs off his every last word, so spellbound by the fierce intensity of Bale’s performance that perfectly embodied exactly how McKay wanted Cheney to be understood, as a truly evil human being.
Vice is equally buoyed by its stellar supporting cast, with deserved Best Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor nominations for Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell respectively, whilst also featuring a strong cameo from Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. Adams effortlessly portrays Cheney’s wife and closest confidant Lynne with a subtle fierceness that only surfaces when she needs to put Dick in his place, an element of the story that is cleverly executed in rendering this seemingly omnipotent, slimy politician almost feeble when compared to tough-talking, direct nature of Lynne, another truly towering performance by one of the best actresses working today. Rockwell is as brilliant as ever in portraying George W. Bush, nailing his accent and behaviours in a way that makes it seem as if no other actor could possibly play the role and despite his limited amount of screen-time, absolutely steals the show when given the chance, the hallmark of a fantastic supporting performance.
Vice is not a perfect film by any means, and its 8 Oscar nominations do perhaps flatter it, given a messy, time-jumping plot that even in such tumultuous times feels often rather politically heavy-handed. The technical elements are hit and miss, with average cinematography and directing fortunately supported by fantastic editing and a great script, but without a doubt, the astonishing performances across the board truly elevate the film to a much more impressive level. Adams and Rockwell offer spectacular support, though it is Bale’s mesmerising, transformative turn into Dick Cheney that is the film’s greatest asset, as it enabled the film to truly portray Cheney for the evil, morally bankrupt individual that he was. Vice is simultaneously absurd and important, as its insane story holds a great deal of relevance within our current political climate, making it a must-see this awards season.
Words by Elliott Jones