Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriter: Adam McKay
Runtime: 132 mins.
Australian release date: 26 December 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 11 December 2018.
Vice is the latest film from Adam McKay, the Academy Award-winning director and co-writer of The Big Short, and he was the perfect choice to make sense of the convoluted subject on hand, the Machiavellian life of ex-US Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). Only someone who could explain the Global Financial Crisis - and make it entertaining - could turn what is, in reality, a very dark tale, into something that is just as humorous as it is dramatic. If it wasn’t true, you’d say it couldn’t happen… but it did, and we’re still living with the consequences today. McKay’s screenplay is a blistering appraisal of the amoral VP, who was never about making the world a better place, and you can imagine that a battery of lawyers must have spent many hours poring over it, making it incontestable. Regrettably, due to this country’s restrictive defamation laws, a bio-pic like this could never be made in Australia.
It is said that behind every successful man is a strong woman and Vice reveals that it was Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) who was responsible for her husband’s pursuit of power. Clever and capable, “She had the brains and ambition but realised that, being a woman, certain doors were closed to her. While she might not be able to pull the levers of power herself, she knew how to get someone to pull those levers for her,” explains McKay. From the very start of their married life in Wyoming, Lynne made it clear to Dick that it was ‘her way or the highway’ as far their life together was concerned. He was something of a loose cannon when a young man, having failed his degree at Yale University, but he had the sense to see the wisdom in his wife and he did as he was told. Arriving in Washington D.C., Cheney’s other strong influence was his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who showed him the ropes and taught him that principles aren’t important in politics, the only thing of value is power. There’s a very black and funny scene where the ingénue Cheney asks Rumsfeld what he believes, only to be answered by hysterical laughter. The crowning point of Cheney’s career comes when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in the 2001 presidential elections and, for the next eight years, he becomes the virtual co-President of the USA, having reached an arrangement with ‘Dubya’ to be responsible for ‘little things’ like Defense, Foreign Policy and Energy. This enabled him to wheel and deal with enormous influence and shape the global future, while nobody noticed that he was the hand pulling the puppet’s strings.
Almost unrecognisable and delivering the most incredible performance of his career, Christian Bale portrays the secretive Cheney with all the slyness of the actual man. The actor gradually draws you in until you almost feel complicit in his character’s devious dealings. Cheney/Bale comes across as rather ineffectual at first, a figure desperately attempting to find a substantial place for himself in the political sphere but, once he figures out the game, takes to it like a duck to water. After a while, you stop seeing a performance and begin to feel more like a fly-on-the-wall in the backrooms of power rather than a viewer in a cinema. Full marks, too, to the team in the Makeup Department; they are bound to receive Oscar nominations. Adams and Carell are scarily good also, as always, and Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser adds weight to the drama by heightening the impression that you’re eavesdropping on the goings-on.
As he did in The Big Short, McKay uses a variety of unorthodox techniques to get his story told effectively: there’s an unusual narrator who’s not revealed until late in the piece, plus jumps in time, characters talking to camera, strange, almost surreal moments alongside documentary footage, a bedroom conversation between Lynne and Dick that reads like a passage from a Shakespearean play, and Naomi Watts (uncredited) pops up from time to time as a leftish Fox News anchor commenting on the action. It’s a “freestyle, almost jazz-like approach,” says co-producer Kevin Messick. And it works well with such complex and, at times, complicated material, keeping the audience motivated and engaged. Vice is unique, a remarkable, highly accomplished piece of filmmaking that provides a nuanced picture of how we got to where we are today. It’s fun but it ain’t pretty.