Despite being one of the most polarising mainstream releases in recent years, Vice picked up a healthy eight nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards.
It is a bold move, for this Dick Cheney biopic is one of the most arrogant, unsubtle and scattershot films of the past decade. Ordinarily, these are criticisms, but Adam McKay, the director best known for the Anchorman series and The Big Short, revels in this style, leaving no room for interpretation with his message.
His latest feature sees him portray former Vice-President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), a man who became one of the most powerful individuals in history despite being unknown to the wider public. Early scenes chart his rise from drunken university dropout to government official, with his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) and colleague Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) helping him to realise his potential.
The narrative then depicts Cheney’s rise up the political ladder, with the harrowing third act exploring his role in post-9/11 relations. Though the film progresses largely chronologically, McKay adopts similar strategies that were present in The Big Short; a narrator (Jesse Plemons) routinely breaks the fourth wall, albeit not in the same confident, smug manner of Ryan Gosling from the financial film, whilst a hilarious false-credits scene halfway through imagines an alternative world. A brilliant cameo from Alfred Molina as a waiter is a real highlight, utilising a neat narrative device to expose the horror of what’s going on.
Not content with just satire, McKay intercuts images and recurring scenes to create a visual code; Cheney’s regular heart attacks are heightened by the fact he doesn’t seem to possess one, whilst shots of the man fishing allude to his ability to lure other political figures (Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush in particular is played for laughs) into his own circle. These run the risk of becoming too literal and on-the-nose, but the unsubtlety juxtaposes nicely with Cheney’s calm and calculated demeanour; it’s only when he and Lynne recite Macbeth that the allegories stray into indulgence.
Amidst all the chaos – from both a narrative and stylistic standpoint – Bale’s muted yet deft performance holds it all together, fully embodying the man who is both measured and menacing. Often shrouded in shadows, McKay presents him as some kind of looming shark, with Bale’s hunched walk and mid-sentence pauses causing an immense amount of distrust. Though he’s not necessarily interesting as a human – a stumbling block given the early scenes of his formative years -, his later actions leave plenty of room for conversation, and McKay lays out the pieces before collecting them all together in a harrowing final act, hitting his targets with such anger and ferocity that it overcomes its flaws.
Though not as funny or insightful as The Big Short, this is similarly urgent filmmaking from a director who exudes such confidence it’s always entertaining to watch. With such a bold, unsubtle and occasionally unfocused style, it’s easy to see why the film has divided audiences, but McKay is a unique voice in a crowded field, something that should not be taken for granted.
— Vice Movie (@vicemovie) October 3, 2018