Adam McKay’s Vice is a searing and timely biopic about the reclusive Republican figure Dick Cheney (played here by an unrecognisably transformed Christian Bale), one of the most powerful people to have ever wielded the position of Vice President in the US Office. Enigmatic, cold and fiercely devoted to serving his nation, Cheney commanded the government out of the public eye, enforcing major changes to the political climate that still linger today. So how does McKay go about dissecting a man whom the world knew so little about?
If you’ve seen 2015’s The Big Short, then you won’t be too surprised by some of the more abstract and unique storytelling devices McKay uses in Vice to breakdown the obscure and complex matters the film broaches (Margot Robbie in a bathtub excluded from this one). Here, he pushes his film language to even further experimental bounds, blending the film in parts into a quasi-documentary with hopping timelines. Montages of juxtaposed archive footage, historical and dramatical recreations, andKurt (Jesse Plemons) narrator-cum-character deftly employed to explain the more expositional elements. The most striking and reoccurring of these story devices sees shots of Cheney striding out into a stream, fishing rod baited and cast out, waiting for prey curious enough to tug the line. A hunter; poised, patient, silent. But Cheney has bigger fish to catch.
Before he got his place as the VP to George W Bush Jnr, (a convincing look-alike in Sam Rockwell) Dick Cheney’s beginnings are shown to be far removed from who he ended being. A college dropout and drunk who worked putting up power lines on highways and roads, he lacked any form of aspiration, seemingly content with his life and stacking arrests of DUIs. After a stern ultimatum is set by wife, Lynne, (a consistently on form Amy Adams) he proceeds on the path to political prowess, eventually falling under the wing of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) as an assistant. In one scene between them, Cheney asks Rumsfeld “What do we believe in?”. He never receives an answer from Rumsfeld’s howling laughter. That question, a joke in the wind, becomes the driving factor for some of Cheney’s later, more conservative actions down the line. By the conclusion, there is a stunning fourth wall break which indirectly readdresses this question to the audience and defies us to answer it. It’s the boldest moment of the film with Bale looking you dead in the eye and holding you by the jaw, defying you to question him.
The events of 9/11 mark a pivotal turning point. Cheney, in the midst of one of the worst days in American History, sees an opportunity to consolidate his grip on the presidency and enact his will through it. US Foreign policy is aggressively readdressed, with legal loopholes abound exploited (the Unitary Executive order is a particularly astounding one) and the ‘War on Terror’ goes into full swing. A brilliantly conceived surrealist scene demonstrates the level of absurd power that Cheney and his colleagues have at their disposal, as it sees them guided through a dinner menu by their waiter (a pinpoint Alfred Molina), in which the menu does not contain food, but instead options to imprison, invade and isolate anyone deemed a threat to the state. All legal of course. Cheney has full and complete control of everything that goes on inside the White House but to the world, this is Bush Jnr’s administration. A puppet made to dance and sing without knowing who truly pulls the strings.
It is clear that throughout Dick Cheney’s life, he wasn’t always the calculated, ruthless leader he came to be. McKay gives him genuine humanity, rounding out the character with a moral centre. He particularly enforces his connection with his daughters, at one point to a surprising, but pleasingly heartening outcome. Bale masterfully slips between the softer, sympathetic father figure and the calculating, menacing statesman, each side just as honest and raw. He gives notes of humour to Cheney’s multiple heart attacks, dealing with them matter of factly, despite the danger to his health. Whilst there are moments in Vice which do feel warm and playful, they are scarce. For this is an angry, often bleak, and eye-opening film, taking you by the shoulders and shaking you awake. Vice isn’t as breezy or slick as The Big Short, but it is an equally important viewing. It will stay with you long after its closing image and you may find yourself asking, “What do you believe in?”