A longer review for one of the most remarkable of recent films.


Amy Adams as Lynne and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney


In recent times, we have grown accustomed to that closing statement found in films that treat real-life material, the one which states that although based on truth certain events have been fictionalised for dramatic purposes. Things are rather different, however, in the case of this satirical comedy centred on George W. Bush's Vice-President Dick Cheney: it's not just that the written acknowledgment comes at the start rather than at the end, but that it tells us that Cheney is a secretive man which made it the more difficult to tell his story accurately despite which the filmmakers have done their fucking best. Thus, even before the film proper starts, writer/director Adam McKay has set its tone.


Some months ago in BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee gave us a film based on fact that sold itself to the audience through its humour and yet emerged too as a work commenting effectively on serious issues. This tricky balance is again achieved in Vice and, if Lee's movie was using events from the past that could be read as relevant today, that is also the case here. Being a portrait of Cheney concentrating mainly on the time when he was the Vice-President, the film might seem to lack topicality. Nevertheless, in many ways it plays like a riposte to those attacks on the arts that marked the early stages of the present incumbent's presidency when Trump, bridling at criticism, chose to question the talent of Meryl Streep and to lambast the curtain call comments made when Mike Pence, soon to become his Vice, went to see the musical Hamilton. This delayed retaliatory swipe by McKay (delayed I surmise because of the time that it takes to set up a film) involves a portrayal of Dick Cheney's career which brings out the extent to which he paved the way for Trump. Indeed once in a position of power Cheney's outlook would in many respects foreshadow attitudes embraced by Trump.


For many that will mean that McKay's aim in making Vice is an attractive one, although that in itself is not a guarantee of a good film. While many admired McKay's The Big Short in 2015, I could not forget that I had found it formidably intellectual and for my taste too complex in its portrayal of the money markets to be readily accessible. Fortunately, Vice proves to be another matter, far more beguiling and, despite again having an intellectual edge to its dialogue, far easier to follow. Furthermore, while talk seems central to McKay's more ambitious works to an extent that some have found it a limitation in terms of his cinematic flair, in Vice the satirical tone is given its head visually with variations in the screen ratio, occasional telling addresses direct to camera and even a gag in which the end credits make a premature appearance during the first half of the film. It's a lively and stylish affair.


At the outset, we see Cheney played by Christian Bale in Wyoming in 1963, this being a time when nobody could have seen in this no-good type somebody who would have a significant career ahead of him. Even his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), is shown as needing to confront him in an attempt to force him to make an effort to do something with his life. What follows is largely seen chronologically and charts his path to fame and power in the world of politics. This was a world in which he would emerge as a strategical manipulator, a man far more formidable than George W. Bush himself (a role played by Sam Rockwell). Other figures important in this period of American history who appear here include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell on formidable form), Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) and Condoleezza Rice (Lisa Gay Hamilton). Nor does Vice ignore Cheney's own family including the complications that ensued from one of his daughters, Mary (Alison Pill), proving to be a lesbian and consequently creating a potential problem over the image he wanted to build up around his home life.


Politically speaking, Vice is out to prove that Trump's America has its roots in the Bush/Cheney era by touching on such issues as the dismissal of climate change, the invasion of privacy supposedly justified as a response to 9/11, the move for fresh legislation to put the President above the law and Cheney's role regarding Iraq and the action taken over those infamous weapons of mass destruction. However satirical the tone, Vice is commenting seriously on these matters so that the use of actual footage of 9/11 and in addition of torture and slaughter in Iraq and elsewhere carries full weight and does not seem out of place. As a biographical drama, the film almost invites us to see in Dick and Lynne Cheney a married couple who bring to mind the Macbeths. That is very effective, but the actual recitation at one point of lines from Shakespeare feels self-conscious and unnecessary largely because the parallel has already been implied. This minor misjudgment does in fact foreshadow further weaknesses late on when this long film (132 minutes) starts to feel inflated. Along with that, it is arguable that, when it comes to revealing the identity of the until then unknown off-screen narrator (Jesse Plemons) who has been addressing us throughout, the film takes a step too far into eccentricity (on the plus side it raises thoughts of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard of 1950 but, as against that, it leads unexpectedly into rather extended scenes of surgery).


There are, perhaps just enough questions here to make Vice a flawed masterpiece, but it is terrific for all that. The acting throughout is admirable, but what stands out is the remarkable achievement of British born actor Christian Bale transformed by skilled makeup and giving us an utterly riveting portrayal of Cheney: arguably Bale's best work ever, it certainly stands alongside the triumph that Anthony Hopkins had in 1995 when cast as Nixon. Furthermore, even if certain American individuals are clearly the prime target here, the film doesn't let the American public off the hook either. At its close in an address direct to camera, Bale's Cheney tells us that he did what we asked. Powerful stuff this - and don't miss the extra scene halfway through the end credits which, reasserting the humour at the heart of this film, incorporates a critique of what we have just seen: Trump might not see the joke, but it is the one scene containing sentiments of which he would approve.




Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Cailee Spaeny, Fay Masterson, Alfred Molina, Naomi Watts.


Dir Adam McKay, Pro Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Screenplay Adam McKay, Ph Greig Fraser, Pro Des Patrice Vermette, Ed Hank Vorwin, Music Nicholas Britell, Costumes Susan Matheson.


Annapurna Pictures/Gary Sanchez Productions/Plan B Entertainment-Entertainment One.
132 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 25 January 2019. Cert. 15.