‘Vice’ works as a grand plinth to Christian Bale’s resolve, but it doesn’t work as a movie.
First things first: there’s nothing not to admire in Christian Bale’s performance as former Vice President Dick Cheney. He gained a stack of weight, shaved his head and nailed the man’s voice and cadence. It’s a fully committed, A-grade performance which while occasionally standing out as mimicry, also has real nuance and moments of greatness. It’s amazing to think that the same guy here played Batman for three films. Kudos too, to Amy Adams as his “power behind the throne”, Lynne Cheney – the “no prisoners” voice of conservative middle America. While Sam Rockwell has the more showy role as George W Bush, it’s Steve Carell who really stands out in his supporting role as Donald Rumsfeld. The cast is universally great; it’s brilliantly edited and is occasionally painful in its bleak, humorous assessment of the US body politic.
There are moments when you have to admire Adam McKay’s approach to the material. He tries a bunch of gimmicks to get his points across – much in the way he explained the finer points of Wall Street malfeasance in The Big Short. Case in point here, just when he’d have you believe that Cheney exited public life to spend more time with his family and breed golden retrievers, McKay starts to run the closing credits, only to slap you in the face with the cold truth and reality of what kind of Veep the man was. There are moments in the film’s first half where you are compelled to admire Adam McKay’s stones as he takes conventional methodologies inherent or expected in American film and completely throws them against the wall. Much of it is great.
Its leftist bias is something that McKay doesn’t pretend to shy away from, and even ridicules in a prescient and hilarious post-credits sequence. But as he illustrated in the opening title cards, little insight can be garnered about the life of a man who kept many of his cards so close to his chest for so long, but the crew here “did our fucking best”.
It’s essentially where the problem lies in the telling. You would not have gotten any kind of approval or cooperation from anyone in the Cheney family, and McKay’s not coming from any kind of place remotely associated with love or admiration for the man – fair enough. But it’s speculative, and it’s nothing more. Sure, much of it is based on historic fact and items on the public record, but the more intimate stuff, the up-close-and-personal details which would make a standard biopic a more engaging and revealing piece of work, are clouded by the ideological standpoint from which McKay is coming.
So, as someone without a great deal of time for neocon politics, it stands to reason that a man of the impact and importance that Cheney had deserved a better telling. I felt the same way about The Iron Lady – a performance as earth-shattering as Meryl Streep’s, and a persona as important and “great” as Thatcher’s, deserved a better film. Vice isn’t the film it could have been, but it’s the film McKay has made, and one with a nature, structure and tone as unexpected as this is cause for as much criticism as it is praise.