When historians look back at the rise of populism and anti-establishment feeling in the early years of the 21st century, they will almost certainly ascribe it to two central events. The first is the Iraq War, and the loss of faith it engendered in the West’s moral standing and its basic competence. The second is the financial crisis, which utterly destroyed the legitimacy of our economic custodians.
Adam McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, explored the latter in thoroughly entertaining fashion, bagging an Academy Award in the process for Best Adapted Screenplay and featuring star turns from Christian Bale and Steve Carell. His follow-up Vice deals with the first of these epoch-making events, but does so through the personage of Dick Cheney rather than focusing exclusively on the war itself. Once again, Carell and Bale put in superb performances as Rumsfeld and Cheney respectively, particularly Bale who gained 18 kilograms and sported prosthetics to make himself as convincing in the role as possible.
Vice unfolds in elliptical fashion, beginning dramatically in the chaos of the White House as 911 unfolds. We see Cheney disregarding established protocol and stepping into the breach to take total control, a pattern that becomes familiar as the film runs through key incidents in the former US Vice President’s life. We then return to Cheney’s early days as a Yale dropout, making ends meet servicing electricity poles while picking up DUIs in the rural Wyoming.
This eventually brings his relationship with high school sweetheart – and future wife – Lynne Vincent (a deliciously Machiavellian Amy Adams) to breaking point, who threatens to leave Cheney if he doesn’t get his act together. That seems to be all Dick needs to begin his unstoppable ascent towards the corridors of power, from White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford to Secretary of Defence under George H. W. Bush and finally, and most notoriously, Vice President under Bush Junior.
While the early years of Cheney’s life provide some interesting context to his later political exploits, Vice is at its best when it dives into those exploits themselves. McKay finds a delicate balance between taking a Veep/Thick of It pleasure in the superficial thrills and farce of political life, and solemnly confronting the death and destruction unleashed by Cheney’s actions. Political geeks will relish the colourful yet detailed explanations of the American constitutional niceties – similar to the tutorials on financial instruments in The Big Short – that allowed Cheney to dominate the White House in the way that he did.
While on the whole Vice succeeds in offering a highly original take on Cheney’s time in office, it does have a number of weaknesses. McKay’s highly stylised direction, while certainly capable of wowing, can at times make the film feel disjointed, such as a pointless scene where a future in which Cheney retired early from public service is imagined. The direct-to-camera commentary, which worked so well in The Big Short, feels far more contrived here.
Similarly problematic is the inscrutability of Cheney, who while brilliantly played by Bale remains a veritable black box. Though notoriously tight-lipped, one nonetheless feels that McKay could have done more to explore the deep-rooted ideological convictions that led Cheney to pursue the highly damaging policies he did. Implying that everything he did was motivated simply by a lust for power just doesn’t feel quite plausible.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka