If there was any confusion as to director Adam McKay’s motivation when making Vice the answer can be found in Christian Bale’s Best Actor acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, when he thanked Satan for giving him the inspiration to play former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is valuable information to anyone who is yet to watch Vice, as there can be no mistaking the film’s political persuasion. Whereas those who have already seen the film will have been confronted by a passive-aggressive biopic with a strange flip-flopping of sentiments.
I saw the film prior to its release and despite my knowledge of McKay’s work with Will Ferrell (The Other Guys, Anchorman, Step Brothers), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I guess I had half-hoped for a savvy biopic film in line with his previous title The Big Short, which was inspired by the global financial crisis, and what I got was more-or-less a lampoon of Dick Cheney’s career, served with mockery and caricature.
The film begins with the events of 9/11 and chronicles the reaction in the White House. We are introduced to Cheney as a powerful figure taking charge of the moment. The film then flashes back to his youth and attempts to examine the events in his life, which informed the figure we know; from his drunken teens to his rise in Washington, serving beneath a foul-mouthed and highly spirited Donald Rumsfeld. His past provides an interesting trajectory, presenting a man whose influence came predominantly from the woman he loved. I was not familiar with Cheney’s history and I found this portion of his biography to be fascinating.
Of course as the film closes in on his time as Vice President, it depicts his shrewd tactics and manipulation of power. Politics is a dirty business and there are no illusions that it takes a cunning mind to play its game, however McKay’s attempt to paint Cheney as a villain provides a massive disservice to the story and reminds the viewer that we are not actually watching a biographical examination, but rather a farcical and politically biased opinion.
Bale’s performance is a conundrum, because on one hand his famous method approach allows him to transform before our eyes, lending a sense of authenticity, while on the other hand it comes across as an impersonation, rather than an imitation. I am still unsure whether it is a good performance or a deceiving one. His supporting cast is good and it must be noted that Steve Carell is fantastic as Rumsfeld. Amy Adams plays Cheney’s strong-minded conservative wife Lynne and gives a consistent performance. She is very good and often counterbalances Bale’s exaggerated approach, adding yet another veil to his guileful portrayal.
And Sam Rockwell plays George W Bush, the film’s most obvious heckle. Rockwell’s portrayal is well nuanced and he nails the mannerisms with conviction. The problem, however, is the degree that McKay takes to paint Bush as a simpleton. Far from Josh Brolin’s fairer depiction in Oliver Stone’s W, this new take on his character is ludicrous and highlight’s the film’s underlining intention.
I don’t have an opinion of Dick Cheney one way or another (or of George W. Bush for that matter), but their place in history is far too important to pass off like a SNL sketch within the context of a biopic. Of course their flaws were numerous, as are those of any public servant, and their popularity was divisive. And yet their tenure in office was at one of the most fundamentally challenging moments in the course of history, at a time when the internet was changing and social media was exploding. They were the first generation of global leaders facing a new delivery of criticism and a blistering assault of vitriol at a rate of which had never been seen. And so I can’t help but feel that their legacy is misjudged and might have been different had they served at an earlier moment in time, which makes the comedic attack of Vice far too simplistic.
Liberal viewers will LOVE Vice and conservatives will HATE it, and I would assume that most middle-minded people will simply be annoyed that Dick Cheney’s story has been reduced to satire and frivolity. It is not a good film, but it’s not exactly a bad one either. It’s just nonsense.