With Vice, director Adam McKay has strengthened and perfected his ‘bio/docu/com’ style of political biopic. Eschewing the usual Oscar bait candy floss structure, McKay creates a version of Dick Cheney that seems just as comfortable segueing into Shakespearean soliloquies and comparing Cheney’s hunger for power as akin to that of Galactus the devourer of worlds as it does navigating the usual route of boozing and late stage heart attacks. McKay is not afraid to play it serious when he needs to and it’s to the film’s credit that the serious moments do work, but the film ultimately succeeds as a darkly comic pantomime.
Christian Bale’s latest freakish transformation may be his best yet. Steering well clear of the gaunt frightfulness of Dicky Englund and Trevor Reznik, Bale’s cheerful pie-eating demeanour in Vice belies an actor completely, carefully in control of every subtle mannerism.
His performance relies on inevitable impressions yes. Yet, it never descends into the kind of Saturday Night Live buffoonery of other political pictures (Oliver Stone’s ridiculous W being one). Indeed there are many scenes in the film where it becomes difficult to separate Bale with the real-life Cheney. How odd then that he should make the decision to use the exact same raspy American voice he used as Batman – either a strange coincidence or a deliberate choice (many have drawn parallels between Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films and the War on Terror). It’s distracting for a scene or two before becoming part of the furniture.
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The rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely. The always impressive Amy Adams ages gracefully as a deceptively cold and calculated Lynne Cheney (who is framed as the driving force of Cheney’s ambitions). Tyler Perry is a pitch perfect Colin Powell and Steve Carrell plays Donald Rumsfeld as a sort of evil Michael Scott. Carrell’s character always seemed to be in the greatest danger of descending into Dick Tracy-esque silliness and while the film often calls for that level of animation, he never goes too far.
That leaves Sam Rockwell with the unenviable job of playing one of the most impersonated politicians in history. Again, the film succeeds not by descending into a Family Guy farce of having Bush Jr. literally be a crying little baby gleefully manipulated by all around him. Instead, it suggests a sizeable amount of culpability in Bush’s handing of the keys to the kingdom to his second-in-command.
While there are undoubtedly chinks in the armour here and there (while Bale’s look is flawless, some of the prosthetic work errs on the wrong side of looking like a Halloween party), Vice is the perfect companion piece to The Big Short, not only for its similarly visceral assault of its subject matter, but also in its dismissal of its own audience – who can’t pay attention for five seconds unless the topic is broken down for them in the most accessible way possible.