The earlier films of Adam McKay have never really been my thing. The style of comedy in films like Anchorman, whilst I recognise are decent comedies, are just not for me. That changed with The Big Short which I thought was an excellent look at the 2008 financial crisis, with the tone being the right call to make something that complex accessible to mainstream audiences. So when it was announced that Adam McKay was going to do a film about Dick Cheney I was excited, especially after seeing the trailers and seeing just how much like Dick Cheney Christian Bale looked like. However, even with strong performances and an interesting look into Dick Cheney, I’d say the whole is weaker than the sum of its parts.
The film chronicles the rise of Dick Cheney, from his time as a lineman in Wyoming, to being a Congressional intern during the Nixon administration, to his time as chief of staff under Gerald Ford, to Secretary of Defence under George HW Bush and to being Vice President to George W Bush. When the film is firmly focused on the rise of Cheney, that’s when the film works best. Seeing the machinations of Cheney and his mind work as he understands the true power of the Executive Branch and how it can be utilised by someone with the mindset he does to advance a right wing agenda, the damage of which is still felt to this day. Through this, we see just how much power someone can gain without being noticed, by being the listener, waiting for the right time to utilise their skills, and for Cheney, that was being the Vice President under Bush. He gained the knowledge over the years to utilise the Executive to his advantage and advance the idea that if an action is done by the President, it isn’t illegal, so that when Bush chose him to be VP, he was able to manipulate Bush into being his pawn. We also get a strong understanding of the rise of Cheney throughout the 70s and 80s, and how his power and impact has been going on in the background much longer than most people realised, even with his bland attitude, even doing a dull surprise to having several heart attacks. This creation of a character for Dick Cheney is fascinating and gives an interesting insight into the man and his rise to power.
The big problem I had with the film though is that it tried to do too much. Alongside telling the story of the rise of Dick Cheney, it also tries to go into the rise of Fox News, the way the media was manipulated to trick people into going against ideas they should be for, the damage done by the War on Terror (including a point contrasting the fear of Bush delivering the declaration of the War in Iraq to a family hiding from the bombs landing in Baghdad) and the nature of the power of the executive in matters of law, foreign policy and war. Any one of these themes would have been enough to carry its own film, but with all of them pushed together it just makes the film feel awkward, especially in the way the film is edited. There are also points which should have been explored more but weren’t mainly the first Gulf War which is little more than a footnote in the film.
It also feels like the thematic weight of the film just collapses in the last 30 minutes, with a bit about a heart transplant which felt really lazy, and two final codas which just don’t work, one of them seeming to argue against the whole point of the film, and one which is a big middle finger to the audience which just felt like it was mean for the sake of being mean and like McKay is jumping around shouting that he’s smarter than you. There’s also this narration side of the film that pays off at the end that doesn’t really work on the whole in that it feels a bit too disconnected from the rest of the film. Unlike The Big Short, which weaves the fourth wall breaks into the film in a way that highlights the comic absurdity of the events, the fourth wall breaks here aren’t as well integrated, with the main fourth wall breaks being in the second half of the film, making them stick out like a sore thumb, rather than being a core part of the film throughout.
The performances though are the strongest part of the film. Christian Bale is excellent as Dick Cheney, showing the ruthless side of his personality and his skill at the long political game, along with showing that he’s actually quite a boring person in terms of his presentation style and how he conducts himself. However, that’s used to his advantage as it shows how Cheney was able to gain so much power with no-one really noticing or caring. Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney is great as well, showing her own ruthless and calculating mind, making the two a strong political pairing, but I do think her work in the film is underutilised in the second half of the film. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld meanwhile is a great, loathsome character, making him an effective point of anger throughout the film, and showing just how dangerous his personality is when combined with Cheney. Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast as George W Bush, nailing all of his mannerisms and style of speaking. He is underutilised, but every time he’s on screen, you feel like you’re watching Bush. For the supporting cast, Allison Pill is strong as Mary Cheney, especially in the scenes revolving around her sexuality and how it is at odds with the politics of the family, whilst Lily Rabe as Liz Cheney is effective, but I felt like she needed more screen time at the end of the film. Meanwhile, whilst they give strong performances, I felt that Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry and Shea Whigham were underutilised, Jesse Plemons did a decent job as narrator, whilst the performances from Alfred Molina and Naomi Watts felt a bit distracting and didn’t quite work in the
The technical side of the film though is solid. The make-up work used to transform the cast into the people they’re playing is incredible. There were points in the film where, through a mix of the performances and the make-up, I felt like I was watching the real people, rather than actors playing them. This is also helped by subtle CG work and the cinematography which gives each character the framing they needed to convey their character development. The editing though is a mixed bag. When it’s used for comedy it’s great, with an excellent credits gag that does a great job at adding to the theme of the film. However, when it’s used for plot, it feels a but awkward, especially in the second half of the film which has so many more plates that the film is trying to juggle.
Overall, Vice, whilst a good film, is a bit of a disappointment. There are times when Vice truly excels and is a strong indictment of the society that allowed Dick Cheney to gain as much power as he did, but there are moments when this attitude towards the audience doesn’t work and it just comes across as mean-spirited with no real point to it. Again, when the film works, it works incredibly well, but not enough of the film is like that for my liking.
My Rating: 3/5