Vice is the latest release from writer/director Adam McKay, which has undergone much pontification prior to its release on Boxing Day. Many will be familiar with McKay’s previous films which include The Big Short and (much more previously) Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. McKay has gained a sort of reputation amongst Awards bodies including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy, with the more recent entries into his filmography reflecting a new definition of an “Awards film”, with Vice garnering a record six nominations at this year’s Golden Globes, and a win for star Christian Bale (Cheney).
McKay’s film follows Dick Cheney’s (Christian Bale) ascension to absolute power as Vice President to POTUS George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). The film presents itself as a biopic, but stretches itself to many other genres tonally, including black comedy and political satire. The first act is really strong, introducing Dick as an anonymous American who slid under the radar. We are immediately confronted by the idea that nobody knew who he was – that he was like a ghost; a fact which resonated with me as I had extremely limited knowledge of the man previous to watching McKay’s film (but I was also a six-year-old at the time of the election, so you can’t really blame me). The first scene, which acts as the apex of the narrative, is at the White House on September 11. McKay jumps back and forth in time in order to have his audience understand what makes up a power-hungry man, positioning his headstrong wife Lynne (Amy Adams) as the driving force behind much of his success. The trope “the woman behind a great man” is arguably rather tired in this era of Hollywood cinema, but I think that Vice utilises it rather elegantly. Lynne forcefully shapes Dick from the beginning of the film to be her conduit in the patriarchal world which limits her own prospects as a politically-minded woman.
The tone of Vice is similar to that of The Big Short (a film which I tried and failed to enjoy), but much, much darker. And although The Big Short was not for me, McKay struck a perfect balance between the harrowing reality of the collapse of the U.S. housing market and a really quick, biting humour which satirised the American dream. Vice, however is so ingrained within the current global political climate that it is difficult to engage with a film which wants to be both funny and a cautionary tale. The first act of the film is really exemplary of McKay’s talents as a filmmaker who utilises varied tone – but then it gets rather messy. The most consistent production elements of the film in its commitment to the visual and musical makeup of a political biopic, with expressive, patriotic score and naturalistic lighting. If you were to watch this film without dialogue, it would read clearly as a political biopic.
The most impressive element of Vice (by a long shot) is its performances. McKay’s assembly of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell as well as a vast and capable supporting cast works effortlessly. Bale is undeniably impressive as Cheney, but is made even better by Amy Adams who works to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know about Bale’s character (and there are a lot of gaps). This is the third collaboration after The Fighter and American Hustle, proving that they are the leads to beat in Hollywood.
The messaging of this film is overwhelmingly pointed from the get go, with the film’s introduction predicated upon the ignorance of the American people. The narration is told by an ex-soldier (Jesse Plemons) who is linked to Cheney through a somewhat unnecessary reveal in the third act, but unreliably nature of this narration destabilises all of the information given to us about Cheney – regardless of the reveal’s impact. McKay utilises real imagery of Mexican children detained at U.S. borders, as well as of wildfires and Charlottesville, zeroing in on Cheney’s actions to bring absolute power to the Whitehouse – and whilst this is incredibly affecting, I couldn’t receive it after laughing at a George W. Bush gag moments before. In the last moments of the film, Cheney addresses the audience’s desire for ignorance, placing the responsibility of this century’s incredible atrocities onto the choices of the American people. It is incredibly uncomfortable as a non-American viewer, so I have no clue how this is being received across the globe.
McKay’s Vice is undeniably ambitious, but felt like two very different films put together like oil and water. And although McKay implores his audiences to strip back their ignorance, I think that people would much rather go and see Aquaman instead.
Vice is in cinemas now.