Even before Adam McKay rose to a higher provenance with The Big Short back in 2015, I could tell he was a smart director. He managed to tell tales of complicated situations with various branches and condense it into not only an understandable and entertaining experience but a different style of storytelling. Vice attempts to follow that same style and much like The Big Short, it branches out to cover a wide range of moments from Dick Cheney’s political career. Vice is on a quest to everything and while the entertainment still exists, the branches become heavier with a core not stable enough to support them.
I suppose a good place to start is what everyone seems to be talking about, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. Believe the buzz because Christian Bale is simply fantastic. How far Bale is willing to go to portray characters is the stuff of legends and you can clearly see through his performance that he is inhabiting the mind of someone who works his way into that undisclosed huddle of power. The film centres Cheney’s power goals around the idea of Unitary Executive Theory meaning the president has executive power over enforcing laws, we see this take hold during a scene in which George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks Cheney to be his Vice-President. It’s a great demonstration of the puppet master like persona of Cheney and Bale nails the smart manipulation angle well.
What everyone will find interesting is the way Vice presents the biopic to fit the comedic style of McKay. In the middle of the story, before he gets the call from George W. Bush invites him to be his running mate, we get a false epilogue and end credits before the film continues. It has a self-aware nature that criticizes its own flaws, even at the beginning, the film comments on how private Dick Cheney is and that “we did our f*****g best” to get into the mind of the character and try to tell an accurate story. In a way, the film writes its own criticism, but it also strangely benefits from this as it highlights the absurdity of how powerful its subject is.
The occasional 4th wall breaking is done in a narrative by Kurt (Jesse Plemons) who’s character links with Cheney is an incredibly clever way that no-one will see coming. The function is nothing new (people addressing the camera) but it is why they address the camera that is the more inventive. When the 4th wall breaks don’t come from Kurt, it will be because of the film’s belief that it can read your thoughts. The film gets you to think that everything that is happening now is because of Cheney’s actions, this makes you angry and the film realizes your anger and addresses’ it directly. It’s nothing new but it feels new.
In this mix of experimental and structural story, the gaps start to show in the story. Vice feels as though it is split into two parts, Cheney’s rise to power and his vice-presidency, with the second half being much more conventional yet interesting to see. It a climb to the top that anyone would find commendable with Cheney starting out as a drunken college dropout working as a lineman to the White House chief of staff is pretty inspiring, but once he becomes vice president, the film can choose how much of a political satire it is. Vice chooses two guiding elements, performance and visual, but the two ends up being mish-mashed so there isn’t that big narrative punch. We understand he’s politically influential, but it isn’t a clear signal.
Adam McKay fires a lot of shots in this film, but who it is targeting isn’t clear enough. Who is this film supposed to be criticizing, Dick Cheney for doing what he did, or all of us for being oblivious to the obvious? Credit where credit is due, Vice has a good go at targeting both through visual representation (images of freak nature with people not noticing), but then we get moments where the film is telling us that Cheney is directly responsible for the problems of the world today like the rise of ISIS. At the film’s conclusion, there are two more scenes of self-awareness and a 4th wall break from Cheney addressing the audience. Is the film humanizing or vilifying Cheney? Is it blaming him or us? There are so many crossed signals in Vice, the intentions become paper thin and unrecognizable.
For me, performance outclasses the story in Vice. Christian Bale will be the main reason you spend money on a ticket, and since I haven’t addressed it already, the work gone in to make him look like Cheney’s doubleganger is remarkable and worthy of that Oscar nomination. It is a shame that the story couldn’t live up to the talent and I did feel a little underwhelmed by the film. Nevertheless, it is a very smart film which mostly comes down to Adam McKay’s style which is stepping closer and closer to auteur levels so at least some good has come out of it.
Final Result: 6/10 – Above Average
Have you seen Vice? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Next Time: Green Book