The second Bush administration has been writer-director Adam McKay’s bread and butter since his career basically took off. Most will know him from his early work when he partnered with Will Ferrell to deliver the likes of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers, among others. One only needs to watch the second of those three to understand his sensibilities whilst working in that era. Since then, he’s transitioned away from the simple, ribald comedies with Ferrell and tackled subject matter more political and germane to contemporary American life. In 2015, he surprised everyone with his take on the 2008 Financial Crisis in the form of The Big Short, a pedagogic yet still hilarious ensemble piece that made him an Oscar winner for screenplay writing. And rightly so, for he was deftly able to take some of the densest subject matter and use it as the building block for one of the best films of the year. In that same vein, he’s tackling one of the most infamous vice presidents in US history, Dick Cheney who, you guessed it, directly influenced the country vis-a-vis the Bush administration. While Vice doesn’t prove to be on the same level as The Big Short, those who liked the aforementioned film should be fond of this one too, provided you subscribe to a “liberal bias.” The film’s words, not mine.
Vice spans four decades as it covers the life of Richard “Dick” Cheney (Christian Bale), as he goes from working as a lineman in Wyoming to working in the White House. With his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) providing him the strength to make a name for themselves, Dick starts out as an intern to Nixon’s economic adviser Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). When Nixon inevitably resigns from office, Dick is promoted to White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford (Bill Camp). When that president also leaves office, Dick returns to Wyoming to run for the House of Representatives. When heart complications prevent him from campaigning, Lynn staunchly picks up the baton and gets him elected anyway. He later returns to the White House to serve as the Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush, which leads to his son, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), to suggest Dick be his running mate in 2000. Dick ultimately accepts, begetting his reign to make his mark on US history for years to come.
Sorry for the bullet-pointed synopsis, but this is a bullet-pointed movie. When it comes to biopics, I often try to stay away from ones that try to cram every major event in a specific person’s life into two hours, whether it makes sense for the movie as a whole or not. I mean, did you even see All Eyez on Me? Yikes. Meanwhile, there are some like Steve Jobs that are more interested in giving you snippets or select events of a person’s life as a way of commenting on who they were or what encapsulated their personality. Vice unfortunately falls into the former camp, but for reasons the movie itself is fully aware of. Like The Big Short, this one is very keen on breaking the fourth wall, the first instance of which being their own admission that this guy ther’ve covering was a pretty secretive dude, and that what you’re about to see won’t be a perfect amalgamation of his life story. So if you’re actually looking for the nitty-gritty, all the stuff you wouldn’t find on his Wikipedia page, this may not be the most elucidating biopic on the market. However, thanks to the filmmaking style, it may be one of the more entertaining.
In delivering The Big Short, Adam McKay and company knew they’d have to get real with the audience if they were going to get a lick of what they were talking about, so naturally one of the easiest ways was to bypass expository, idiot dialogue and simply direct all that sh*t at the camera itself. Brought in to do so were the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, for no reason at all other than the fact that they’re attractive, recognizable stars with a little time on their hands, ostensibly, that is. By breaking down the seams of the film itself, viewers were allowed to take brief economic lessons in the middle of the picture that were both informative and wry, which would in turn allow them to enjoy the plights of the featured characters that much more. Vice is very similar, as a largely unidentified narrator – played by the always solid Jesse Plemons – breaks down the life and times of Dick Cheney, the stuff we know, at least, to edible form. And the narrator’s self-awareness that this is a movie allows the storytelling process to take quick breaks in the narrative to liven up the proceedings, even if it doesn’t make logical sense, in a way that you’d hardly ever see in a biopic, least of all one about an American politician. I’m not going to spoil those particular scenes here, but sufficient to say, they’re pretty juicy stuff. That said, if you’re looking for a more conventional approach to this prominent figure, namely one that won’t criticize him here and there, you might want to look elsewhere.
But the biggest WTF factor going into this one has to be Christian Bale in the central role. I’ll admit, when I first read that he would be packing on forty pounds of meat to play someone twenty years his senior – at least, when he was most relevant – I was pretty skeptical. Sure, Bale is no stranger to body transformations to get the job done. Those who’ve seen his work in The Machinist and American Hustle will know that much. But damn. Not to knock the casting – Christian Bale can play just about anybody, it seems like – but they could have gone with a multitude of actors who already kind of fit the part. Breaking Bad alum Dean Norris is someone who comes to mind. Then again, when you want to put butts in seats, you can’t go wrong with the sheer gravitas of Christian Bale. And he’s great, to the surprise of no one. I don’t think that was ever in question. He’s very consistent with his mannerisms and you can clearly see him acting behind all that makeup. I was a little young during Cheney’s Vice Presidency, so I can’t quite speak on behalf of the likeness, but if you were also to tell me that Bale was simply doing an impression, I wouldn’t disagree with you either. He’s probably one of those actors who’s satisfied with the mere challenge of playing out of his comfort zone, so all the awards recognition he’s getting right now likely comes as a bonus. The way things are going – now that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy – you can pretty much expect his name to be read aloud come Oscar night. While I wouldn’t necessarily nominate him myself, the name recognition pretty much makes him a shoo-in. Ask me a month ago and I’d say he wouldn’t stand any shot at winning, but seeing as the race is pretty much wide open, I’m willing to give him dark horse status. Stranger things have happened. As far as the other actors are concerned, I’d say Amy Adams has a pretty good chance to pick up a nom for Supporting Actress, though she’s only going to end up going home empty for the sixth time, Regina King having already locked up that category with If Beale Street Could Talk. Another costar people have been looking at is Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor, but seeing as he took home the trophy last year for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I don’t think the Academy will be feeling the itch to get him back in the mix so soon.
So yeah, that’s Vice. Not nearly as good as The Big Short but still entertaining and unique enough in its own right. Again, this is a picture that’s going to appeal to certain filmgoers more than others, for a multitude of reasons, but if you’re looking for something a little different to wash out all that big-budgeted holiday hoopla, Vice might just be for you.
Final Score: 7/10