Director Adam McKay’s most recent film, 2015’s The Big Short, took a ridiculously complex (and, let’s admit it, not terribly photogenic) topic and turned it into one of the best, most entertaining films that year. No, the 2009 housing bubble certainly wasn’t anything Joe Moviegoer would rush to learn about, but in McKay’s hands, the movie (which won him the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) worked phenomenally well.
In Vice, McKay again takes up a complex and un-photogenic topic—this time it’s former Vice President Dick Cheney—and attempts to work the same kind of magic. And though the film does have its moments, McKay unfortunately never really seems to find his voice and also seems content to portray Cheney as a one-dimensional Dark Lord of American politics. The result may be entertaining and cleverly constructed, but Vice can’t entirely shake the feeling that we don’t know the man any better than we did when we walked into the theater.
The film begins in 1963, as Cheney is pulled over for drink driving following a bar brawl, and proceeds to track his political career, spurred largely by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). At one point, in fact, McKay whips up a faux Shakespearean monologue to make Lynne appear to be a Lady Macbeth-type, giving Dick the direction and drive he needs to reach the top of the political world.
Much of Cheney’s career is touched on (intern under Nixon, Chief of Staff for Ford, Secretary of Defense for George H.W. Bush), but given the time constraints of the movie, McKay has limited time to present each, and much of the film feels like a rush to get to the red meat—Cheney’s years as Vice President.
Christian Bale (who gained forty pounds, bleached his eyebrows, and shaved his head for the role of Cheney) turns in an award-worthy performance, completing becoming the man we saw and heard on our televisions throughout George W. Bush’s White House years. Bale mastered Cheney’s halting cadence and his mannerisms, but it never feels like mimicry; this is acting at its highest level. And Adams may be even better.
McKay, for his part, does offer up some clever devices to tell the story—including the same fourth-wall-breaking clips he used to such great effect in The Big Short. There’s a brilliant mid-movie fake credits scene that elicits hoots of laughter and a brief bit with Alfred Molina as a waiter presenting a menu of ways Cheney and his cronies can screw over post-9/11 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Vice shouts from the rooftops that the man did everything he did because he was a power-hungry narcissist (sound familiar?), but in reality (at least according to recent articles by politicos), the motivation went much deeper. And though some way-left liberals may eat up Vice as a pleasant bit of comeuppance for a man who so richly deserves it, it’s easy to imagine there was quite a bit more left on the floor of the editing room and in the history books.