The Dark Knight star Christian Bale once again provides a heavyweight performance as he assumes the role of former US Vice President Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s Vice, curled smile and all.
It has always been a marvel to watch stars become so immersed in the roles and Bale’s transformation into the 46th Vice President is no exception to that rule. It is a transformation that can only be magnified by the performance itself and director Adam McKay’s polarizing take on one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, who leaves you guessing every step of the way. McKay just lobs so much at you over the course of the film with Monty Python-esque satire one minute and then some eerie foreshadowing about the future the next in a similar fashion to his 2015 comedy-drama film about the 2007 Financial Crisis, The Big Short. There is no question that this is a cinematic outing where McKay is invested in trying to explain how things in the world got to be the way that they are now. The back-and-forth narrative of Vice will definitely resurrect the feelings of resentment among liberals who expect the film to revile Dick Cheney as a real life Darth Sidious while the far-right will roar that it is “Hollywood liberal propaganda” because McKay crafts it to portray the rise of Cheney’s power hungry America that gave rise to the current president. However, the film doesn’t fully engage in either narrative. McKay, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted screenplay for The Big Short, is never shy about how he engages us in a zone where the politics can get personal for a lot of people who may connect with the events of the movie.
Despite sporting a monotone voice, latex, and 45-pounds, Bale is able to give off a charismatic and terrifying performance as Cheney over the course of his life and his career as a Washington insider. He goes from being a Yale washout to an alcoholic Wyoming lineman to a man whose wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sparks a fire under him to get his life together. This fire takes the inspired Cheney to his humble beginnings as an intern for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and later positions such as the Chief of Staff for President Gerald R. Ford, Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush, and the Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton. These experiences mold him into the quiet, cold, and calculated bureaucrat who served as one of the most infamous and powerful vice presidents to George W. Bush, portrayed perfectly by Sam Rockwell. Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney is undoubtedly perceived by McKay as this powerful force who helped propel her husband’s career and shaped some of his policies at a time when women were starting to assume more recognition in politics. She was his face while Dick was that “ghost” whose opportunistic style of obtaining power would forever alter the political landscape during numerous presidential administrations, including the Trump administration.
Of course given the subject matter of Vice the audience still has to ask if any of the events that the film portrays are true or even accurate. This is question that McKay was expecting and one that he humorously addresses in a pre-credits scene that points out that there’s not a lot of information on the secretive Cheney family, but that they “did their fucking best.” From that moment on you can tell that Vice isn’t going to really conform to the same heavy-handed narrative that a lot of other biopics such as Frost/Nixon and W. tried to be. McKay is no Oliver Stone nor does he want to be based on how the film sometimes jarringly bounces around from time-period to time period and subtly humorous editing about Cheney “baiting” W. Bush like a fish on a hook. There’s also the mysterious narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons) who has some form of personal connection to Cheney that is not revealed until the end of the film. There’s a fake credits roll that is worthy of the greatest of Monty Python outings and a riotous scene where Bale and Adams speak in iambic pentameter, as if they were Lord and Lady McBeth. Alfred Molina comes along later on in the film to offer a menu of tools such as focus groups to Cheney and his cabal of right-wing malefactors who seek to manipulate their unwitting constituents into doing whatever they want them to do.
Levity is an important tool that comes in handy in keeping an audience invested in a politically-charged film such as this can get utterly morbid. The Machiavellian Cheney was quick to manipulate the tragedy of the September 11th attacks to achieve his own vision for America. He was able to invoke a broader fear of terrorism, to heighten the tension over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, create an enhanced surveillance and interrogation program, and start a conflict that proved costly for American troops. In short, Cheney was able to create a shadow government of his very own under the nose of the unwitting Bush. All of this comes to a head in a heartbreaking scene in which the Cheney cabal is able to convince a reluctant Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) to lie to the United Nations about the existence of nuclear and chemical weapons in Iraq. A scene, which Perry is able to make us feel a great of sympathy for the statesman.
It would be easy for Bale or any other actor to portray Cheney as this generic mustache twirling villain, but he would never do that. He’s too talented for that and has said that he approached this role with the intent of “embracing Cheney with sincerity.” Vice isn’t afraid to shine a light on Cheney’s humanity as a caring husband and father to his daughters, Mary (Allison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe). Cheney has an opportunity to run for president, but he forgoes it to protect his daughter Mary from the attacks that would undoubtedly come at her due to her homosexuality. This love, however, is not solvent as we see later on in the film. As Liz decides to make a bid for the US Senate, she is forced to condemn same-sex marriage and in extension, her own sister. But before she does this she asks her father for his approval, who merely nods. It is a chilling scene that serves as an indictment of the cutthroat nature of politics, and it is just one of many.
In my opinion, I would say that Vice‘s human but still manipulative portrayal of Cheney is appreciated. It is McKay making an unbiased measurement of how people will always forgo their own empathy so that they can follow narratives created by people whose only aims are to amass power at great costs that everyone else will have to pay. Bale masterfully warns us about this in a House of Cards-style monologue where he aggressively states, “You chose me,” “I did what you asked.” This criticism about people’s choice is not a partisan one, but a bipartisan one. More importantly, Vice is a humorous, but still sincere indictment of American politics.
What do you think of this news? Did you enjoy Vice? Let us know in the comments below! Join the conversation with me on Twitter at @ANerdWonder!