I am interested in what to take away from Vice. Here’s a motion picture devoted to examining former Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise to power. The film is more removed in time from the George W. Bush administration than Oliver Stone’s W. back in 2008, so there’s already a level of reflection that helps inform this feature. That in mind, how has director Adam McKay chosen to reckon with a secretive mastermind responsible for and poorly viewed because of his many controversial, let alone dangerous choices as a politician with power on the mind? Evidently, it comes down to presenting his actions in a straightforward, if a bit heightened manner, no matter how ridiculous the scenarios may seem.
Christian Bale stars as Cheney, and true to the actor’s reputation, he takes the role on in all ways possible. A pleasant film such as one of the nicest of this holiday season, Stan & Ollie, merely required elaborate makeup and costume designs for John C. Reilly to appear as large as Oliver Hardy. Vice has Bale, once again, packing on 45 pounds and shaving his head. With that sort of dedication, you can only hope it leads to a terrific performance, and that is the result. More than just an elaborate impression, the sort of presence Bale brings to his take on Cheney is contemplative, calculating, and imbued with just enough of a sense of mystique. Basically, this is not a man to cross.
As a biopic, Vice follows the format that makes the most sense. The film establishes who Cheney was early on, a man with no real goals except to get drunk and get by, only to realize his ambition after hitting one of the higher levels of rock bottom and being scolded by his wife Lynne (a terrific Amy Adams) for it. From there, we watch Cheney reach higher levels of power after a jump into politics. He gets some early mentoring from Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and continues to succeed from there, as we watch him balance being a cutthroat businessman and assessing how to have a frightening amount of influence over others in power.
Within all of this, it would seem that McKay is positing how little regard Cheney appears to have for what political party he is associated with, let alone what the true spirit of those parties would want to support. This would be an intriguing layer of commentary were it not so accurate, let alone coming out at a time where history is repeating itself (albeit with a central figure not nearly as savvy). Still, with this positioning of Cheney, Vice can strip away pretenses by putting true intentions right out in front of viewers, but with a sardonic touch and a playful spirit.
Much like his Oscar-nominated The Big Short before this, McKay relishes the opportunity to make a big show out of critical decisions that affect how America would function, particularly when Cheney is in the role of Vice President. Despite a striking presentation of how bad things may get by taking certain stances, the film wants the viewer to have a weird sort of fun with how we see those decisions get made. Whether it’s in the humorous delivery of dialogue by Carrell and other big names taking on key political cabinet roles, or in the stylish touches such as having Naomi Watts cameo as a Fox News correspondent speaking directly to the audience. It’s no less audacious than having Anthony Bourdain explain collateralized debt obligations.
Presenting these sorts of extreme concepts in a wacky manner, however, comes at a cost. With The Big Short, it felt like McKay was having fun playing as an anarchic disruptor to traditional biopics. With a filmography made up of crazy Will Ferrell films (with built-in social commentary), seeing him make a move towards more pointed material was fresh. Vice feels more refined, as McKay has grown more confident, but the film lacks an extra punch as a result. The major jabs at the administrations McKay is railing against feel more precise, which, in turn, has the film feeling far less explosive and more a confirmation of just how corrupt things were, could be and remain. One could say this more calculated approach reflects the man that Cheney is, but does that make for a cinematic experience worth savoring?
I suppose it can. Many will enjoy seeing a film dig into the corrupt nature of those more interested in power and money than how they affect the people they have been appointed to serve. Knowing that Vice is a big studio release only further displays how the cinematic medium can serve as some sort of appealing lecture. But does this film just amount to a lecture for both those wanting it and others that may be inclined to take on a new perspective (or completely disregard it for a variety of reasons)?
Maybe it comes down to how the film takes on other aspects of Cheney’s life. While it’s fun to see Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and others in various key roles, the more interesting turns in the casting and story concern Cheney’s personal life. As mentioned, Adams is excellent as Lynne Cheney, no stranger to wanting power either, but the film does engage with sympathetic territory when dealing with Alison Pill’s Mary Cheney. Given the role her personal life plays into the events of the film, seeing Cheney, Lynne, and others strategize on a political level, means getting some insight to how Cheney’s mind works and what actually does affect him as a human being.
So, does Vice have an issue playing things too close to the vest for deeper introspection to allow for a more substantive film? Or is the presentation of these events handled in such an outlandish way that it’s hard to engage beyond a level of satisfaction of seeing a mighty but lowly approved figure being put in the spotlight? There are strong performances to watch, and the film has enough strength in the writing and direction to appear confident, but the takeaway feels muddled. By the time we realize why Jesse Plemons’ character has served as the film’s narrator and also have Bale’s Cheney lean into the camera to criticize the viewer, I can’t help but think the chance to bring something beyond a satisfactory takedown has been missed.