James C. Clay // Film Critic
For a movie centered around Dick Cheney, director Adam McKay’s (THE BIG SHORT) VICE is uniquely entertaining even outside of its novelty casting and premise. This film is more than the sum of its parts and departs from being a (cue GOP buzzword) Hollywood liberal elite’s way to make jabs at the Bush administration. Currently, McKay’s career paints in broad strokes of innovation, while continuing to find new ways to give information with a visual flair that’s not only easy to digest (but the sensationalized look entices you for more of what McKay is cooking up). VICE works best as a mythical look that plays with the essence of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), Lynn Cheney (Amy Adams), Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrel) and George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) public personas. There’s even a title card at the film’s opening that says, “We did our f*cking best.”
McKay “stepped up his game” in 2015 (even though there are arguments to be made that STEP BROTHERS is his masterpiece) when he wrote and directed the zany and head-spinning look at the 2008 housing crisis, THE BIG SHORT. He won a screenwriting Oscar, the film made a ton of money, and it pissed a lot of people off when they realized how we got to this point. The film used cutaways, talking head celebrities and outside-the-box metaphors to explain the convoluted plotting of the housing market.
There are so many reasons why VICE shouldn’t work. I had reservations going into my screening. Nostalgia for the Bush Era (2000-2008) is just now beginning to turn rosy, but who wants another movie about politics given the current climate? Perhaps some distance and perspective on those years would make for a better movie, and maybe it would, but a little pretension and a wink never hurt anybody. However, McKay is a man of the people, quite literally in fact, as a middle-class voice-over character played by Jesse Plemons (GAME NIGHT) gives us an omniscient look into Dick’s life and a window into the filmmaker’s perspective.
McKay’s film works at a blistering pace as we meet the young Dick Cheney during the early 1960s. He’s hammered drunk, just got in a bar fight and is being pulled over by the police; a far cry from the man he was going to become. Bale embodies the man as a stout and lumbering individual who is carrying a tire around his waist, yet he bows his head in front of his wife Lynn who threatens to leave him in Casper, Wyoming, if he doesn’t clean up his act and aspire to be the man she thought she married. Dick quickly joins the Republican party and becomes the aid for fellow whiskey-drinking, steak-eating Congressman Donald Rumsfeld – and just like that, the Cheney rise to power has begun. There is enough in the film to incite anger, gasps, and tons of laughs (at the audacity of men in power and using the Constitution to royally manipulate Americans). Life in the White House is a gamble, and the Cheneys were able to get a full boat with the ladies doing the paddlin’. McKay’s script takes you into that power struggle and the quest to gain a seat at the table all the while having to deal with the antics of Rumsfeld. The shadiness of D.C. is no surprise here, but VICE shows that power knows no bounds.
When it comes down to it, this is a performance film with quite possibly the best casting of the year and certainly the best ensemble. Nothing new can be said about Bale’s prowess as an actor. From AMERICAN PSYCHO, to THE FIGHTER and last year’s criminally underrated HOSTILES, the guy is a gentle force of artistry, and for an actor who is audacious in his film choices, he brings a modesty that few performers can. He transforms Cheney into a contemplative individual; you can just imagine the gears turning in his mind as he’s thinking three steps ahead. Bale’s portrayal is a bit meditative, a bit silly, and completely human as this characterization stays grounded in McKay’s heightened landscape. Adams owns it as Lynn Cheney, the woman pulling all the strings igniting the ambition that got the Cheney’s a $26 million buyout from Halliburton when Dick left his position as CEO to join “W” in the White House. Her conviction for greatness rivals a boxing trainer grooming their prized fighter for a Vegas fight.
You can’t have a film about the Cheneys without the inclusion of the Bush family, more importantly, “W”, who is dopily played by Rockwell in a performance that’s used as comedic seasoning. It’s Carell’s take on Donald Rumsfeld that becomes the film’s main supporting player. He does well, but is par for the course.
VICE warns a cautionary tale of power that breaks the fourth wall and throws the rules of cinema out the window to become one of the most creative and entertaining films for adults this year. Sure, the subject matter seems a bit trite and inaccessible, and who knows how the film will age. However, there’s some lighting caught in this bottle that’s looking to entertain and invite, rather than persuade and incite.
VICE opens nationwide Christmas Day.