Written and Directed by Adam McKay.
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Fay Masterson, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Bob Stephenson, Jillian Armenante, Abigail Marlowe, and Jamie Bernadette.
Vice explores how a bureaucratic Washington insider quietly became the most powerful man in the world as Vice-President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways still felt today.
Not only has writer/director Adam McKay refined the craft with which he implements his brand of irreverent humor into political context (a filmmaking advancement employed with the Best Picture-nominated The Big Short following some modern-day landmarks of comedy like Step Brothers and other Will Ferrell vehicles), Vice functions as relentlessly scathing and timely beyond measure. Of course, there are playful comedic sketches considering the mountainous level of gag material Vice President Dick Cheney provided (alongside the entire George W. Bush presidency), but the laughs gradually grow more depressing and anger-inducing as he climbs the political ladder with success. By the end, Adam McKay has shattered the fourth wall and demanded audiences to put more serious effort into their voting. After all, the people did vote this clown into office, therefore getting what they asked for, regardless of Cheney’s stances and beliefs (most of which are awful, for the record).
For the Make America Great Again crowd in the back, it’s worth noting that while the opening text overlay states that Vice is based on a true story, due to the secretive nature of Dick Cheney’s personal and political actions, bits and pieces of it might not be entirely accurate, finally noting that “we did our fucking best”. Regardless, it’s a tone-setter; this is a biopic that takes itself deathly serious and not so serious at all, which is partly why the attempts at comedy somewhat began to subside post-9/11 (which is really where Cheney seems to have gained unchecked political control, more so than openly taking on the majority of the responsibilities during an outside dinner meeting with Sam Rockwell’s identically clueless and unfit POTUS George W. Bush before campaigning).
The events unfolding are no longer funny, but rather horrifyingly paving the way for the more dire future that we currently live in. There’s a montage during the ending with much to contemplate (accompanied by some powerful music from Nicholas Britell, who between this and If Beale Street Could Talk has to be in line for an Oscar nomination), namely with honing in on the deterioration of what little empathy and humanization existed in him in the first place throughout the four-decades sprawling real-life character study. Speaking of that, it’s the only nitpick I have with Vice; the complicated dynamic involving Dick Cheney being the father of a gay daughter (Alison Pill as Mary Cheney) yet running as a Republican (the film does acknowledge that he never explicitly acted against topics such as gay marriage) is too rich to save for a compelling climax and not exploiting further. They are glimpses of Dick Cheney treating his family with love and respect, but not enough to truly get inside their headspaces (save for an unrecognizable Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, the equally conservative and supportive wife that likely inspired his ruthlessness).
The rest is flawless. Anyone with a pair of working eyeballs can attest from marketing alone that the physical transformation from Christian Bale is another unparalleled showcase of method acting/weight fluctuation commitment. Obviously, the makeup and prosthetics departments have done a tremendous job as well (it’s important to note that all of the above are altered as the years pass, with each rendition of Dick Cheney containing as much care and methodical accuracy as the last without regard for the screentime length of each one). However, these are just cogs in the machine to his Best Actor-worthy performance; the tics and mannerisms on display assist that physical transformation to a degree that Christian Bale is no longer visible. Even during the younger years of his life where Dick Cheney still recognizes Christian Bale (yes, the performance is so good that the transformation must now be reflected upon backward), the voice and behavior still resemble the character and not the actor. There’s a scene where the narrator discloses the scary reality of how Dick Cheney can sell a preposterous idea to anyone in power, which is fully realized and one of the film’s funniest moments, but made all the more memorable by Cheney’s smirk and smug sideways body posturing.
Chronicling everything from being taken under the wing of Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (frequent Adam McKay collaborator Steve Carell who not only leans into the hatred for his persona on all sides of the political spectrum, but probably has the most disturbing line of dialogue in the whole movie, laughing out loud when proposed the question of what the Republican Party believes in”, observing and listening in the shadows to strike when the time is right, abusing the law when given presidential power, the creation of Fox News, the pointless invasion of Iraq, and the unsettling nugget that the incompetence and power hungry administration and service of George W. Bush was responsible for the rise of Isis, Vice covers hefty ground with remarkable pacing. There’s never once the sensation that the character arc is moving too fast for anything to be processed in a meaningful way; it’s 2+ hours of riotously funny Dick Cheney bashing and escalating bewilderment, the kind without fear to implicate the audience for letting all of it happen. The mid-credits zinger is one of the funniest yet simultaneously headshaking things I’ve seen all year, serving as the perfect exclamation point for this maddening experience.
Vice also contains narration from Jesse Plemons as an actual undisclosed character that pops up from time to time delivering asides. All the information we are given is that he is somehow related to Cheney, and the way Adam McKay incorporates this framing device into the overall narrative is nothing short of genius. I’m sure political and history buffs will possibly able to figure it out right away, but most viewers will come away astonished at the cleverness. The narration also allows Adam McKay to splice in images and short video clips for stylistic effect that also go along with whatever nonsense Dick Cheney is up to.
Perhaps the most important lesson in all of this is that even with respect and empathy gave where it is due, Dick Cheney still comes across as one of the slimiest and most destructive forces to ever weasel his way into power. In that regard, Vice is an essential cautionary tale for our time, and while it’s still debatable whether the VP was worse than Donald Trump, one can’t help but feel Adam McKay is only warming up for a spiritual successor tackling the current disastrous administration. Regardless, Vice is impassioned and righteously angry work grounded in Adam McKay’s inventive humor, but it doesn’t only speak to the viewer, it’s a rallying cry for us to accept the damages country brought America and to never let that mistake happen again. The knife to the heart is that for as incredible as the film is, the sentiment might still be too late. Preserve it for every single future generation; Vice will forever remain vital.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com