Directed by: Adam McKay
Premise: The life story of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). He rises in the ranks of the Republican Party and as Vice President to George W. Bush he advances a series of initiatives that expand the power of the executive branch and shape world events.
What Works: Vice comes from Adam McKay, a director who established himself with Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers and who brought his irreverent brand of filmmaking to serious topics with 2015’s The Big Short. McKay continues in that direction with Vice and many of the film’s strengths are in its absurdist approach to the material. This film leans more toward drama than comedy but McKay’s sense of humor livens up the material and distinguishes Vice from the standard Hollywood biopic. The humor also creates an effective contrast; some scenes are quite serious and those moments hit harder because of the shift in tone. The most outstanding aspect of Vice is Christian Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney. He’s put under an impressive makeup job and the physical transformation is uncanny. But Bale also captures Cheney’s voice and mannerisms. Performances like this always risk becoming parody but Bale is genuinely in character.
What Doesn’t: It’s clear that Adam McKay is not a fan of Dick Cheney and this film is predicated on the thesis that Cheney was a disastrous world leader. The problem is the film’s scattershot approach. There is a telling moment early on in Vice in which Dick Cheney asks his mentor and then-congressional representative Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) what they believe; Rumsfeld responds by laughing in Cheney’s face. The implication is that these men believe in nothing except the acquisition of power for its own sake. That’s a misreading of Cheney’s worldview and an overly simplistic dismissal of why Cheney did what he did. That simplicity impacts the rest of the movie. Vice is a hit parade of the many outrages of Cheney and the George W. Bush administration including rendition, torture, warrantless wiretaps, and the invasion of Iraq, among others, but it doesn’t stem from a deeper ideological commitment. The film also uses voiceover in a way that is forced. It’s a storytelling cop out, with the filmmakers relying on the narrator to explain things to the audience instead of dramatizing them.
Bottom Line: Vice has a tremendous performance by Christian Bale and the actor and the unconventional filmmaking style distinguish this movie. But those who remember the George W. Bush years aren’t going to learn much from Vice and the film’s take on its subject is superficial.
Episode: #732 (January 6, 2019)