Prove your humanity

Vice feels like the film writer-director Adam McKay has built up to his whole career. Looking at his films AnchormanTalladega Nights and Step Brothers, on a surface level, they’re extremely well-done absurdist comedies. But, if you take a deeper look at the worlds of these three films, it’s clear he’s satirising Bush-era America as the films are clearly populated by arrogant, narcissistic, and, frankly, idiotic men. Over a decade later, McKay finally gets to tackle the administration his first three films made fun of. However, instead of delving into the life of George W. Bush, we follow the rise of Bush’s secretive and insular Vice President—a man who irreversibly changed America—Dick Cheney (Christian Bale).

Though primarily known for absurd comedies, McKay finally received award recognition for The Big Short—a pseudo-mockumentary take on the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Much akin to The Big Short, Vice is not your standard beat-by-beat retelling of true events, with McKay bringing his newfound style of meta, frenetic storytelling to a traditional rise-to-fame biopic.

At the start of the film, a foreword states how secretive Cheney was as a person and that they “tried their fucking best” to tell this story. But, in terms of storytelling, McKay’s depiction of Cheney’s life and the Bush administration certainly doesn’t skirt around the edges. McKay wants you to know how incredibly flawed this man was. We begin by following Cheney from his early days in the ‘60s as a Wyoming lineman with his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). When he’s arrested for DUI, Lynne forces him into pursuing a more respectable career by threatening to leave him. It’s obvious from this early point that Dick Cheney’s life and persona isn’t going to be glorified in any way. In an early scene between Cheney and the overtly slimy Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), they bluntly scoff at the idea of using their political power to benefit people’s lives. McKay makes it clear that the politicians inhabiting this narrative criminally lack the basic empathy you would expect a politician to have.

Vice certainly challenges Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as the angriest film of the year. Unlike the upbeat trailer would have you believe, this is a cold and cynical film with bursts of humour that McKay is known for. In one of the more memorable scenes, a waiter introduces the dishes of the day to Cheney and his political disciples at a restaurant, which include “a fresh war powers interpretation” and “Guantanamo Bay” among other political scenarios. In Cheney’s signature straight-laced and humourless fashion, he says: “We’ll take all of it”. It’s a crazy gag which would’ve sounded incredible in McKay’s head. On screen it comes off as slightly self-indulgent, yet creative nonetheless. This scene is the litmus test of how much you’re on board with McKay’s meta approach to this story.

There are an incredible number of stylistic flourishes on screen, which relate back to the self-satirical and meta storytelling angle McKay’s aiming for. There’s an extended gag involving a deliberate fake-out of when our story ends. It may not work for everyone, but I give props to McKay for doing something very original. Dick Cheney’s frequent heart problems are played for humour, with McKay even giving us a 3D visual of Cheney’s heart floating in empty space—clearly beating us over the head with the allegory of Cheney’s heartlessness as a human being. Vice’s humour often comes from the audience laughing (and cringing) at the characters’ utter idiocy or lack of empathy, with the rampant mockery often hitting well, but sometimes feeling too in-your-face to be fully effective.

The audience is guided through Cheney’s life by a narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose identity is purposefully teased until the third act. It’s a framing device which will divide many; likely being seen as cheap to some but genius to others. Unlike Ryan Gosling’s often hilarious narration in The Big Short, Plemons’ character is played completely straight.

Where the film truly excels is in Christian Bale’s committed performance to the titular Vice President. It’s obvious his physical transformation is something to behold, but his effortless ability to strongly portray such a dour and personality-deprived individual is worth the most praise. Amy Adams plays Lynne Cheney with an empathetic edge, giving humanity to the wife of a man who lacks it. Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell seem to be giving deliberately heightened performances as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush respectively. Carell’s portrayal amps up the uncaring, immature and slimy nature of Rumsfeld, while Rockwell hamming up the dopiness and idiocy of Bush. The caricature-like nature of these portrayals will be divisive, but McKay knows he wants this administration to be depicted in a scathing light.

Rogue One and Lion cinematographer Greig Fraser gives the film a very polished look, helping create McKay’s strongest film to date visually. Composer Nicholas Britell provides typically great work with a score ranging from epic orchestration to groovy ‘70s-inspired funk rock.

It’s no secret McKay is critical of right-wing politics. He doesn’t give much leeway for Cheney to show any humanity or reason for his actions until the film’s final stretch where Cheney gives an impassioned monologue about how he made the tough choices weaker politicians wouldn’t. McKay makes the smart choice to let Cheney give a reasoning behind his ideology in creating the war on terror, but never actively justifies his actions which cost many people their lives. We see some of his heart when he supports the sexual orientation of his homosexual daughter, but McKay’s eager not to humanise Cheney too much.

Vice is a tonal juggling act, but there’s enough inventive ideas on show to make this a more compelling viewing than your most safe biopic (I’m definitely not referring to Bohemian Rhapsody). What’s certain is that this film will be divisive. McKay brings a hard, satirical edge which will turn off many viewers due to, what a number will argue, is smug and self-indulgent filmmaking. However, I’m sure many will praise it for its ambitiousness and the way it approaches such a blank-faced protagonist. I can understand both sides, even though I lean slightly towards the latter. What most can agree on, however, is that while Cheney has been out of power for close to a decade, his presence still undoubtedly lingers today.

Vice is in Perth cinemas now.