'Vice' Is an Ambitious Examination of the Banality of Evil Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons
Published Dec 19, 2018Just in time for Christmas, here's a brand new iteration of the Grinch story. No, not the Benedict Cumberbatch cartoon — that other schemer with a heart condition; ex-Vice President and very bad banana Dick Cheney. Vice pulls back the hood of George W.'s widely acknowledged puppet master and takes a stab at tracing the origin story of ISIS, the war in Iraq and the enforced misinformation Trump's America. Sound festive? Resoundingly not — but it's very, very watchable.
In tackling such a subversive power broker as Cheney, screenwriter and director Adam McKay (The Big Short), prefaces the first scene with a caveat: This is all true — pretty much — and in the attempt to pin down the smartest ghost Washington ever knew, well, "We did our fucking best."
Irreverence of this ilk flows through this part-biopic/docudrama/ exposé/satire, and so does the explanatory tone — sometimes to its detriment. The role in Vice of a mysterious, down-home narrator (Jesse Plemons) is the film's riskiest stylistic choice, and although the device pays off in a late-stage Act of God/Satan, it's at the expense of viewers who've had to put up with constant interruptions and a talented cast who are masterful in their subtleties without any outside help.
Vice knocks through the highlights of Cheney's political and corporate exploits at a solid pace. Portraying Cheney across four-plus decades, Christian Bale treads lightly — a real feat for an actor infamous for cultivating sociopathic behaviour in the name of his craft — and nails it utterly. A rueful nod here, a casual lean there — it's a performance of true restraint and shrewdness. A simple backyard meeting between Cheney and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, in great yee-haw form) to discuss the Vice Presidency takes on Shakespearean weight as Bale's lowered eyes assess the buffoon before him who will be king — followed by a knockout scene of Bale and Amy Adam's Lynne Cheney sitting in bed gleefully plotting a coup in iambic pentameter.
Is it self-indulgent? Completely. McKay probably should've employed a more cutthroat editor for his passion project to clean up more amateur elements — the grainy, shock-value aesthetic of various montages, in particular, are cutting-room floor material — but the film atones for this lack of polish with an offbeat, screw-it attitude towards the biopic genre itself.
While there isn't much moral ground Cheney can claim at the end of this damning portrayal, Bale's depiction of Cheney's final counterargument is given with quiet, fourth-wall-smashing authority that could rival some of Richard III's soliloquies. This final tip of the scales is a tribute to the complexity of the times and a satisfying cap on an ambitious, but occasionally overwritten film.