Christian Bale transforms himself into Dick Cheney for Adam McKay’s Vice. Bale is no stranger to extreme dieting methods to prepare for a role, for Vice he piled on 40 pounds to convince us he’s the former Vice President of the United States. And convince us he does. His performance is outstanding, it’s no less than we expect from such a talented actor who has graced his career with variety. Thankfully this isn’t a case of a strong performance carrying a poor film (like something else nominated for Best Picture), McKay once again hits the mark, treating a difficult subject with respect while earning the laughs.
From the opening crawl, the filmmakers offer a disclaimer that the movie is accurate… to the best of their knowledge and research. After a brief introduction to our subject responding to the 9/11 attacks, we’re given some background on Cheney as a drunken loser meandering through life before his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), convinces him to get his act together. We see how he finds work as an intern during the Nixon Administration under Donald Rumsfield (Steve Carell) and witness his rise to power as it takes a toll on his personal life.
As brilliant as Bale is, the supporting cast more than hold their own weight against such a towering performance. Amy Adams is solid in her portrayal as Lynne, a strong woman who could be as influential and callous as her husband. Carell’s nauseating turn as Rumsfield makes him instantly punchable. He’s cold and weasel like, an odious little man where sympathy is hard to find. For me Sam Rockwell came close to stealing his scenes as George W. Bush. His Southern frat boy persona highlights how out of his depth he is without really seeming to realise the real world consequences of his actions. Whether it’s an accurate portrayal of Bush is debatable. Here Rockwell makes us believe that his Bush is true, he’s excellent as he reminds everyone what a great actor he is, even if he is always the bridesmaid and seldom the bride.
The parallels to McKay’s earlier work, The Big Short, are evident in the narrative structure and directorial style. This isn’t a straight up retelling of events, McKay uses filmmaking techniques to keep audiences entertained, ensuring the movie is as enjoyable as it is informative. It evokes rage and astonishment with greatly timed humour that lifts it from any political dirge. It isn’t bogged down in politics, instead it’s a highly accessible film with a very dark edge.
Cheney’s human side is also explored, he can’t be full on bad guy 24/7, but the film works best when we see him being the villain. McKay and Bale’s depiction of Cheney reminded me of Tony Soprano, except this isn’t a mob boss, he’s a politician that maneuvered himself into a position of the most powerful man in the Whitehouse without having to take the Oval Office for himself. It’s not balanced, McKay’s view is clearly skewered one way, but the film doesn’t claim to be anything other than what it presents.
It’s fantastically entertaining, an unflinching look at Cheney with McKay pulling no punches in exposing the ruthless side of the man. Despite this, the movie is no hatchet job. Yes, it offers a less than flattery view of him but it does so with an unapologetic expression of defiance, as hammered home in its final scene. It’s uncomfortable at times and may offer revelations for some. What it is unlikely to do is alter your opinion one way or the other.