(2018—Director: Adam McKay)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
Three years after The Big Short propelled writer-director Adam McKay from comedy auteur of the 2000s to Academy Award-winning fervent societal satirist, he and Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for The Big Short) team up once again with Vice. Less than the sum of its parts, Vice showcases yet another transformative performance by Bale, fast burning turns by co-stars Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, and excessive narration by Jesse Plemons. All these serve an imposing exposé trajectory that pales next to The Big Short’s brilliance and, despite the conviction of Nicholas Britell’s patriotic yet macabre-sounding score, ineffectively insists on Cheney’s political career as the great American horror story of the past half-century.
In 132 minutes spanning just over a half-century, writer-director McKay tracks the life of Richard “Dick” Cheney (Christian Bale, pudgy and partially-bald) from his early days as an alcoholic “ne’er-do-well” with frustrated girlfriend and eventual wife Lynne (Amy Adams) by his side. Working his way to Washington, D.C., Cheney apprentices under future Secretary of Defense Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, delightfully nasty) finding his life calling as a “humble servant to power”. Finally, Dick Cheney rises to become, with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, relishing playing dim-witted) as President, one of the most powerful and secretive Vice Presidents in United States and arguably world history.
I feel safe in saying that Vice is no Big Short. The Big Short woke audiences up; Vice pressures audiences to get terrified and incensed. The Big Short transitioned from comedy to tragedy like a rug swiftly pulled from underneath everyone’s feet. Vice, somehow angrier than BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee, locks into horror mode for its subject matter to the extent that only those politically inclined will fully view the horror presented as such.
That said, McKay, Bale, and company certainly try their hardest. From time to time throughout Vice, McKay has film editor and Big Short alum Hank Corwin insert, among many other things, fish and fishing imagery. Whereas Christ once told Peter and Andrew that he will make them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17) and convert souls to God and truth, Vice’s fish and fishing imagery suggest an entirely separate and sinister agenda of baiting. For big fish like VP Cheney, Sec. Def. Rumsfeld, their minions, and their puppets (including arguably Pres. George W. Bush), their bait was power—wartime power in particular. For the guppies of the American public, their bait was the promise of a robust and absolute executive branch in the United States government. Vice communicates these dynamics well enough and with endless kick throughout, though the latter dynamic truly hits home with Cheney’s blistering final monologue to the camera.
McKay’s vision does not work without Christian Bale’s chameleon-like performance as VP Cheney. One all but accepts that Bale is Cheney—hairline, heart issues, dulled vocal inflections, and all—that Vice’s final cut does not even need the brief shot of a shirtless and beer-bellied Cheney seen in the middle of the electrifying trailer. Vice is Bale’s show to the point that recognizing anyone else for acting awards feels excessive. Such marks the supporting performances of Amy Adams as wife Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell as Pres. George W. Bush. (Rockwell recently won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.) As with Claire Foy in First Man and Laura Harrier in the aforementioned BlacKkKlansman, Adams’ moments of channeling Lady Macbeth are few and far between. After the sudden and magical soliloquy between her and Bale as he decides whether or not to accept the VP role from Rockwell, Adams falls to the background for the rest of Vice’s runtime. As for Rockwell, it surprises me to say that he factors little into the story outside of when he offers the VP job to Bale. Also, it is hard to resist viewing his performance as little more than an impression, what with all the past sketches and caricatures imaginable, not to mention Josh Brolin’s more comprehensive take in W., the 2008 Oliver Stone film.
In the end, Vice would have benefited from greater balance and, dare I say, minimized bias. Any depicted conservative figures need not fall into either spineless expendables or conniving power-seekers, especially when any shortcomings of liberal figures get the briefest of appearances (e.g., a pro-Iraq War speech snippet by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, a clip of the flub in Pres. Barack Obama’s first inaugural oath) or are overlooked entirely. Why portray a young Antonin Scalia (Sam Massaro) as a snickering goblin, even though he would go on to get unanimously confirmed by the Senate to become a Supreme Court Justice? Is it not a bit narrow-minded to visually prefer Pres. Jimmy Carter to Pres. Ronald Reagan based almost entirely by the former’s installation of solar panels on the White House roof and the latter’s dismantling of them? What if they were not efficient enough yet? Perhaps fourth wall-breaking commentary from the rest of the cast, instead of from Jesse Plemons (whose underwhelming link with Cheney comes right near the end), would have provided some of that needed balance.
What a time to live in America.
(Parental Note: Vice has been rated R by the MPAA “for language and some violent images”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language, disturbing scenes,” and “infrequent bloody images”, and L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for “scenes of combat violence, gory and gruesome images, partial nudity, a lesbian theme, several uses of profanity, about a half-dozen milder oaths, and frequent rough and crude language.”)
(P.S. Keep an eye out for a mid-credits scene.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.