It seems apt that a film about American politics should prove so polarising these days. Of all the contenders in this year’s awards conversation, Vice is the one you will most likely love or loathe. Not only is this the story of the controversial, power-hungry ogre of a man – or political giant with admirable conviction, depending on your persuasion – but it is an Adam McKay film and thus comes with a degree of laconic self-assurance so strong that Dick Cheney himself would approve.
Balanced on a tonal wire somewhere between Armando Iannucci’s Veep and McKay’s last feature, The Big Short, Vice is another impressively accessible take on erstwhile complex issues. Though the film opens to a White House in 9/11 disarray, it is in a flashback to 1963 that Cheney’s cinematic journey begins. Christian Bale plays the man who will later become the most powerful Vice President in history but is here he’s an alcoholic and a wastrel, a no-gooder, trapped in a dead end job, having dropped out of Yale. His smarter, more ambitious wife, Lynne, is on the cusp of leaving and seems primed to after a drink driving incident sees Dick convicted. Her message is clear – ‘you have the courage to become someone or I’m gone’ – and so is McKay’s: behind every ‘great’ man is a barnstorming performance from Amy Adams. See also: Superman. The man of steel mightn’t seem a neat comparison here but there’s a dark edge to both, an unnerving strength and remarkable rise from nothing. Sure enough, a sharp flash forward six years finds Cheney in the White House, albeit as an intern to the Nixon administration.
Following Cheney’s career across four decades of snivelling, manoeuvring and filibustering, the film does a sterling job in capturing the changing tides of politics and society, on both visual and epochal levels, climaxing in the first decade of the new millennium. This latter stage, McKay posits saw Cheney peak in power and effectively cripple the relationship between the East and West. It’s dramatic stuff and a rollicking, utterly believable, conspiracy. Before then, we see Cheney taken under the wing of Nixon’s abrasive economic adviser Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and eventually rise to the role of Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford (Bill Camp). As Jesse Plemons’, occasionally on-screen and perhaps a touch overused, narrator puts it: ‘the eighties were a great time to be Dick Cheney’.
Except, they weren’t quite perfect. A heart attack surreptitiously suffered in the midst of a painfully dry campaign speech inaugurates a running gag that repeatedly sees Cheney casually announce: ‘I do believe I have to go to the hospital now’. At home, meanwhile, Cheney’s daughter Mary (Alison Pill) has come out, giving rise to friction between the surprisingly liberal minded Dick and his anything but party. In McKay’s wittiest conceit, it’s at this point that the film ends. Conclusively so. Nicholas Britell’s music swells, the camera pans and wholesome captions reveal that Cheney retired, recovered and reared award-winning golden retrievers. Editor Hank Corwin fades to black…and a telephone rings. It’s George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Cheney’s back in the game. But this time it’s different, this time he’s in control, this time he’s manipulating disputed evidence and sending America to war with Iraq. In just a handful of scenes, McKay segues from hilarity to horror. The delivery is expertly handled.
Much of the film is, as it goes. There’s plenty that doesn’t work – the narration and music intrude, while the pacing has a mixed success rate – but, for the most part, this may well be McKay’s most assured film to date. It does, of course, help that his performers rise to their roles with outstanding commitment. Spurred by McKay’s approach to improvisation, Bale not only gained forty pounds, shaved his head and bleached his eyebrows for the role but thoroughly researched every aspect of Cheney’s personal and political life to know him inside and out. While the physical transformation is impressive, it would be wrong to suggest that there’s no more to it than make up. In spite of grand ideas that no VP had ever had so much power, McKay employs Cheney as a pawn through a generation of political chess, slowly lurching towards the King. A post-credits sting is the icing on the rotten cake.