Thu, 07 Feb 2019
Running time 2hr 12min
VICE recalls with satirical relish a very different time – a time when we expected a certain degree of intellect and competence of American politicians. There’s a Shakespearean poetry about the story of former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose icy composure and lack of conscience facilitated his rise to the top of the Washington food chain; that director Adam McKay plays this up for pure dramatic effect is the least extraordinary thing about this biopic. More remarkable is his eschewing both cheap polemics and docudrama theatrics in bringing this most contentious of narratives to the big screen. This is accomplished, in part, by McKay’s liberal deployment of the same tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that made his Big Short such an unconventionally enjoyable ride – here is a filmmaker with a real sense of how a film about the 21st century should look, all montage and artificial glitz. But it’s Hollywood chameleon Christian Bale who seals the deal, dropping a career-best performance in the central role.
Those gagging for an anti-Dick diatribe will not be disappointed by this movie, which doesn’t go so far as to ‘humanise’ (let alone rehabilitate) the Iraq War mastermind; McKay is far more interested in wallowing in his subject, drawing from the
shadows an elusive figure and interrogating his contemporary relevance. It is, therefore, the Smirnoff Ice of political biopics, a sharp, concise document of recent history, which does everything you’d expect it to and just a little bit extra.
Inevitably, there’s skulduggery, dark-corridor shenanigans and a Big Important Speech where Darth Cheney sets out to vindicate his villainy, vaguely reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s notorious monologue in A Few Good Men (“you can’t handle the truth!”); in all, it’s cerebral, surprisingly popcorn-friendly,entertainment. But appearances are as integral to the film as content – Vice’s shameless refusal to preach allows its all-star cast the wiggle room they need, and the resulting slew of compelling performances raises it well above previous treatments of this era (namely Oliver Stone’s W.). Bale’s genius lies in the fact that he plays Cheney as a walking, breathing Rorschach test – while McKay’s script pulls no punches vis-à-vis his political projects (this is an unabashedly partisan account), you can read Dick practically any way you like. He’s a man who shares himself and his motivations only in as much as it is in his interest to do so – from youthful wildcard to yuppyish Nixon staffer to White House godfather, he’s revealed to have led a life of reinvention. His mastery of the dark art of politics was, moreover, by no means an innate attribute – Lynne (Amy Adams), his domineering wife, had more than a little to do with it. No mere Lady Macbeth to Bale’s cold-eyed king, Adams is as much the spiritual centrepiece of the film as her on-screen other half; her Lynne toys with the nuances and complexities of power in much the same way her husband does.
The other contributions are robust, albeit much less earth-shattering. Sam Rockwell’s Bush is very much the George W Bush of popular folklore, a reformed frat boy whose inarticulacy and lack of administrative savvy enables Cheney’s backroom machinations. Steve Carell turns in a wonderfully slimy portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, a one-time mentor of Cheney’s who soon finds himself overshadowed by the big man. There’s a drably technocratic quality about proceedings – these men are not driven by any high-minded ethical principles (in an early scene, Rumsfeld openly stresses his disdain for such concerns), nor are they merely in it for the money. While the film’s subject matter may appear dated at first glance, McKay insists upon its urgency – in rendering the US government a corporate junta, a graveyard for nihilists and aging armchair warriors, Cheney set the stage for the same populist vulgarity he purported to hold in contempt.