(USA, 132 min.)
Written and directed by Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Tyler Perry, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Lily Rabe
"Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?"
Dick Cheney is a villain worthy of Shakespeare. The Bard deftly blended tragedy and comedy to comment upon the rulers of today and while Adam McKay might not be William Shakespeare, he certainly knows how to craft a bad guy. After skewering Wall Street, the man behind The Big Short takes aim on the White House and sends audiences back to the dark ages of the now- second worst administration in the history of the USA. George “Dubya” Bush is too easy a target though, and has already been picked apart by movies like the incendiary Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Bush-league Oliver Stone biopic W. Instead, McKay sets his sights on the junior Bush’s wingman, Vice President Dick Cheney, played in a deadpan performance by Christian Bale in a furiously funny film. Cheney is a man of many vices and McKay’s flick portrays him as a crafty, Machiavellian politician who was really pulling the strings throughout Bush’s reign of terror. Vice is an all too relevant satire when yet another idiot is running the show in 2018.
McKay provides a playful bit of revisionist history as he draws upon the records from Cheney’s past. The opening title cards humorously note that this tricky Dick was a master redactor and kept a suspiciously scant paper trail during his time in office. McKay and company have a lot of fun putting Cheney on trial with a great degree of circumstantial evidence.
The bulk of the film centres on Cheney’s orchestration of the war in Iraq and the shrewd political manoeuvers the Veep pulled in fabricating the dots that purported to connect Iraq to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Vice covers much of the same terrain as this year’s other look back at the Bush era, Rob Reiner’s forgettable Shock and Awe, but with a little more style and a lot more spunk. The film bounces national tragedies like happy opportunities for Cheney to exploit as he uses his political shrewdness to interpret the laws liberally and bend the Vice President’s authority. While Bush’s stupidity makes headlines, Cheney goes in for the attack like a stealthy shark.
Bale owns Vice with his immersive inhabitation of the heartless Veep. His Cheney is an par with villains of great tragedies. (An observation McKay himself makes, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Bale is often prone to overacting, but his work in Vice surprises with its restraint as he takes ownership of Cheney’s signature monotone to convey the man’s coldness and cruelty. It’s a heartlessly mannered and precise performance, perfectly researched and calculated to capture Cheney’s cunning mind and moral bankruptcy. There is no warmth to this man. He only smiles in recognition of opportunities.
Adams is the Lady Macbeth to Bale’s sinister second-in-command, playing against type and showing a side of herself we haven’t seen outside of The Master. The natural warmth of Adams’ screen presence is a trait the actress shares with her subject, and the homely, matronly presentation of Lynne Cheney makes her ruthless ultra-conservatism sharp and disarming. Adams, like Bale, is very funny by playing it straight and the darkness of Vice’s sense of humour makes the present reality of the farce doubly unsettling.
The film boasts of the year’s best ensemble casts with an A-list roster of talent peppering roles of all sizes and seizing the opportunity to stick a knife in the Veep like the band of complicit killers in Murder on the Orient Express. Steve Carell is a highlight in the sprawling chorus of male co-stars and gives an excellent turn as Donald Rumsfeld. He uses his dry comedic timing for great dramatic effect. Sam Rockwell provides an uncannily bang-on interpretation of George W. Bush that nails his adolescent eccentricities while Naomi Watts is a hoot playing one of the generic “Fox News Blondes” who anchors the news coverage with dry, impersonal delivery but nicely coiffed locks. Alison Pill is the heart of the movie as Cheney’s gay daughter Mary, who cruelly becomes a pawn in the family’s heartless thirst for power, while Jesse Plemons is an intermittent scene-stealer as the film’s mysterious narrator. The ruse of having Plemons serve as Vice’s guide is one of the film’s shrewdest formal moves, especially since McKay withholds information about the speaker’s identity until the film’s end to bring Vice to an unexpected and ironic conclusion.
While the film lambastes Cheney without concern for subtlety, fans of The Big Short will relish the playful assortment of formal devices that McKay uses to skewer the Veep. For example, one scene sees Cheney admit that he could better express himself through verse. Bale and Adams transition from contemporary dialogue to mock-Shakespearean verses as Dick and Lynne consider in conspiratorial exchanges their fates and those of their rivals. It might be the single most ingeniously funny scene of the year as Bale gives a performance worthy of Richard III with Adams making a fair Goneril (note the “Reagan” joke), and Vice conveys that a modern-day plot may run afoul in Washington as a powerful wingman plots to usurp the POTUS.
Other fun tidbits like a fake “and they lived happily-ever-after” ending around the 40-minute mark shows how close the world came to being saved from the Bush/Cheney marriage. Nothing in Vice ever quite captures the magic of the scene in The Big Short in which Margot Robbie explains stock market stuff while sipping champagne in a bubble bath, and the film often strains to offer exactly that kind of out-of-nowhere bullseye that makes it all click. McKay, to his credit, certainly has a lot fun trying.
This tautly scripted and sharply acted flick doesn’t hold back in alleging Cheney’s self-serving evil. However, Vice also lets Bush off the hook while doing so. Vice's Bush is all-stupid, no blame. There's no denying Bush's stupidity, but the film humanizes him in key moments and often lets his buffoonishness serve as a protective bubble of ignorance. (Which may be accurate, but still...) For example, when McKay dramatizes the moment in which Bush addressed the nation and sent the country to war, he zooms close on Rockwell’s foot as the President anxious jitters his heel, uncertain of his actions. The image cuts to a father in Afghanistan as his heel also jitters while his family await the bombs that will kill them. The parallelism is offensive and not the rose-coloured lens that Bush, or anyone in his administration, deserves.
The portrait of Cheney, on the other hand, is so great because it lets audiences see his inner workings and understand how and why he became a power-hungry animal. It does so without making audiences sympathize for Cheney, and Bale’s performance ensures that he isn’t a one-dimensional monster, either. He’s the best villain of the year. Cheney exists as a rare form of evil: one we can recognize, but can’t fully grasp. Cheney isn’t the only villain in the movie—he just might be both the most and least obvious baddie.
Vice opens in theatres on Christmas Day.