Adam McKay is no stranger to political satire. From being a writer for SNL through to his feature length debut Anchorman, the writer/director has made a career of mixing social commentary with absurdist comedy. Of all current writers, he perhaps has the strongest handle on the essence of satire: trying to make sense of the world by mocking it. All of his films have been laced with it. Be it the gender politics and overt sexism inherent in his debut film, or the delusional, narcissistic Ricky Bobby and co in Talladega Nights (a spoof of American hero dramas and a commentary on Bush-era America), McKay has always given us characters to laugh at and empathise with, as they mirror the worst (and sometimes the best) of Western society. Anchorman 2 provided a satirised view of opinion news. McKay and regular collaborator Will Ferrell even worked together on a broadway play about George W.Bush entitled ‘You’re Welcome, America.’
With his 2015 film, The Big Short, McKay took a different direction with a more serious tone. He wanted to ask the question: how did America impact (and create) the 2008 global recession? With his latest film Vice, he’s gone one step further in talking about one of the most powerful men in U.S politics (and the world) by incredulously asking the question: how did Dick Cheney become one of the most powerful men in the world, without many people even knowing his name? Cheney is an incredibly secretive man and did everything he could to leave no trace of his inner life and no bread crumbs for anyone to pick up after him. For many people, it’s proved almost impossible to pin down the essence of who this man really was, but as the prologue states, McKay did his ‘f__king best.’
In a timeline spanning half a century, Vice starts in the 1950s in Casper, Wyoming. We meet a young, boozy Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who spends his nights getting into fights at a local bar, whilst getting average grades at school, until his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) demands that he show some ambition. According to Lynne, she can’t go to an Ivy League school or become an influencer ‘because that’s just how the world is’. Dick states to never let her down again, and he sets out to make something of himself. As Vice leads us to believe, this is the moment that changed the history of U.S politics and the world as we know it, long before he sits down with George W. Bush (a gormless Sam Rockwell) to discuss being his vice-president, some 45 years later.
As we follow Cheney’s rise through the U.S political system, Vice crosses several periods of time and several administrations, while the populist right contracted and loosened its hold on the White House. Jesse Plemons narrates us through each twist and turn, and his character’s relation to Cheney provides one of the big twists in the film. McKay plays with tone and style throughout, mixing dark tragedy with absurd, fourth-wall-breaking moments that enhance the gonzo nature of this Shakespearean tragi-comedy. An alternate ending that plays mid-way through the film is a particular highlight of the sliding doors moments that filled Cheney’s life. In a remarkable central performance, Christian Bale (who gained around 40 pounds for this role) morphs into Cheney right in front of us, with his trademark growl and deadpan gaze. It takes an actor of real nuance to make someone this uncharismatic this watchable. Even the many heart attacks that he has through his life are shown with deadpan reactions that are hilarious.
Alongside the imperious Bale, the supporting cast are the zippy ying to his monotone yang. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) plays a key part in Cheney’s nihilistic power-drive and their relationship is portrayed in a way almost akin to a buddy-comedy, through one of the films many tonal shifts. Rumsfeld shows Cheney the ropes of the political landscape and guides him as a young man through the gossiping corridors of the Nixon-led White House in the 1970s. In a particularly poignant scene, Cheney’s question ‘what do we believe?’ is met with a guffaw from Rumsfeld.
Though perhaps the most interesting character in this saga is Lynne Cheney, played with absolute steel by Amy Adams, reminiscent of her role in ‘The Master’ in summarising the adage: behind every bad man is an even worse woman. McKay revels in the Lady Macbeth parallels, and even includes a scene in which Lynne breaks into a soliloquy from the Scottish play, including a thunderous background sound. Does it lack subtlety? Of course. But Mckay and co use every weapon in their armoury to push the character plummet as far they can. And again, he revels in the Machiavellian Cheney’s thirst for power. After all, all of the great Shakespearean villains wanted power for power’s sake, didn’t they?
Whilst Cheney is played as an all-out villain in his public life, he’s shown to be a loving father when at home with his family. This amplifies the tonal ambiguity and has proved to be a divisive point among audiences, wherever they may sit on the political spectrum.
Whilst Vice intertwines fact and fiction in the pursuit of figuring out who Dick Cheney really is, it provides a dark, satirical look at one of the most powerful men in the world over the last 50 years and how America, its trials and triumphs, were shaped by him. It is a smart, self-aware take by a director that continues to surprise which each film.
Rating - 7.5/10
Vice is in cinemas now.
Review by Dave Howarth.