Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons
Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay
Whatever one might think about his politics or the quality of his work, Adam McKay is undoubtedly one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. After having built a career out of making cleverly, creatively dumb comedy films with Will Ferrell, his forte has transitioned over to what’s called the essay film. Following in the tradition of such documentaries as F for Fake, The Gleaners & I and pretty much every Michael Moore film, McKay’s latest filmography is one that blurs the line between fact and fiction, expresses abstract ideas in concrete, tangible terms and engages with the viewer in an open, self-reflexive dialogue. He employed this format to startling effect in The Big Short where he deconstructed the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 in a way that was both entertaining and educational. McKay has a genius for explaining complex themes and concepts in simple ways that viewers can easily understand and there is no other filmmaker working today who is pushing the possibilities of the essay film further than he is. With his latest film McKay once again draws from the well of modern history to recount the story of one of the most notorious and reviled figures in American politics (which is seriously saying something!), former Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Vice follows Dick Cheney through his political career, starting with his days as a White House intern during the Nixon administration and ending with his turn as Vice President under George W. Bush (a delightfully cartoonish Sam Rockwell). While maintaining a personal life with his wife and two daughters, Cheney learns the ins and outs of White House politics and takes each lesson to heart as he sees presidents rise and fall and discovers the truth about the true power that runs the country. Finding great success under the Ford and Reagan administrations, Cheney’s time truly comes when the buffoonish Dubya invites him over to his Texas ranch and invites him to be his second-in-command. Realising that he can transcend what has traditionally been more or less a ceremonial role in the US government, Cheney accepts and offers to oversee the more “mundane” parts of governance such as bureaucracy, military, energy and, uh… foreign policy. With all the influence he needs and nobody watching, Cheney ascends to become the country’s de facto ruler. Working from the shadows, he imposes his will upon the United States with an iron fist and, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sets the nation on a path that will lead them into a catastrophic war.
Looking the spitting image of the man thanks to the work of the make-up team and sporting a soft yet menacing growl throughout, Christian Bale (who never met a character he wouldn’t completely transform his body to play) portrays Cheney in this portrait of an infamous public figure about whom surprisingly little is actually known. The film records how he started off as a blue-collar drunk barely scraping by and rose little by little to become the puppetmaster of the Bush administration, the man who was really in charge while Dubya played the fool and distracted everyone from what was really going on. Between those two points is an endless gulf of ambiguities and unknowns which McKay fills in with commentary, abridgements and digression, all of which serve to help us get to the heart of who Cheney really was and what he wanted. The problem is that by the time I got to the end, I still wasn’t sure who exactly the film thought Cheney was. The Vice-President was a very bad man who did some very bad things, that much the movie is clear on, yet it never manages to tap into what exactly they think Cheney’s ideology is or if he even has one. We gets hints and implications such as how Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton, an energy company that just so happened to do well when the USA invaded Iraq, but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient in light of how the film depicts him.
The way the film tells it, there were two figures in his life who had the most profound effect on Cheney. The first was his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth figure if ever there was one (there’s even a scene in which Dick and Lynne engage in a Shakespearian exchange). She is shown to be the woman behind the man, the one who berates him into making something of himself and who reminds him at every turn not to forget what it is they’ve both been working for (whatever that is). The other is Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) the slimy Republican who taught Cheney everything he knew about being ruthless, sneaky and totally amoral in modern politics. “What do we believe in?” Cheney asks him upon becoming a card-carrying member of the Republican Party and Rumsfeld laughs uproariously in his face. Between these two forces moulding him into the villainous political mastermind he would become, we get a sense of Cheney as a man of great, pitiless ambition who will pull every dirty trick in the book and sell out on every fibre of his moral being in order to get what he wants. But what does he want? Well, when the film allows Cheney himself a chance to explain, it appears that everything he did was about protecting his country and its people. “I will not apologise”, he says hardheartedly and with contempt “for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night”. But that’s not the truth of it and, the harder the film tries to get under the skin of this inscrutable man, the more confused everything gets.
That wouldn’t necessarily be so bad since few things in life are ever that simple and one can never truly know the true depths of another person’s soul (or lack thereof) in its infinite entirety. Vice however doesn’t know that it’s confused. It charges along with all the confidence of a white, rich, C-student man running for the presidency through the main events of Cheney’s life, jumping back and forth in time for no apparent narrative reason, and in the end it never manages to land on a satisfying note. There are several gimmicky moments that are great fun by themselves, Bale delivers a marvellously sinister performance and the creative licence McKay takes to tell this messy story in an engaging and entertaining way does impress. There are fourth wall breaks, a syncopated editing style that keeps the viewer on their toes, an unconventional framing device with a twist ending, a false end credits sequence and dozens of little touches here and there that allow McKay’s cheeky sense of humour to remain prominent through it all. It doesn’t amount to much though because the elaborate, convoluted essay that McKay has constructed doesn’t end up revealing any kind of meaningful insight on its own subject. Unless you are below a certain age or don’t live in the United States (both of which, I’ll admit, are true about myself), Vice has little of worth to offer on the question of who Dick Cheney is beyond, as Bale himself suggested in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Satan incarnate.