Three years after winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Big Short, a fast-paced and funny look at the 2008 financial crash, writer-director Adam McKay turns his attention to the Iraq War in Vice, an idiosyncratic biopic of ‘the most powerful Vice President in history’, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale).
With the same distinctive directorial style and familiar use of non-naturalistic techniques to explain the more technical political concepts, it is impossible to avoid the comparison with McKay’s acclaimed 2015 film, and it is a comparison that doesn’t do Vice any favours. While the stylised techniques employed in The Big Short were polished and well placed within the narrative, here they veer into being overused, with the choppy direction and overuse of narration in the first half hour making it hard to engage in the story or characters. Indeed, the film would have lost little of value from cutting the first 30 minutes entirely, as this section serves simply as a whistle-stop journey through Cheney’s life pre-Vice Presidency, with little of the information having any relevance to the overall plot of the film.
The film truly kicks in when Cheney is asked to become the running mate of then-Republican Presidential Nominee George W. Bush, played by Sam Rockwell. From here, Cheney begins scheming his way to more and more power, using unorthodox readings of the Constitution to centralise powers in the President’s office and evade accountability. At this point, it’s hard not to be reminded of Netflix hit House of Cards, with Cheney matching the murderous Frank Underwood in both his ruthless plotting and brazen disrespect for the law it is his duty to uphold. This is a comparison where Vice does not lose out, as the political manoeuvres pulled by Cheney and his men are just as enthralling to watch, if also more enraging.
And we are supposed to be enraged – Vice is funny but barbed. There are no half-hearted attempts at appearing unbiased, everything from the script to the direction to the editing exudes vitriol for the Republican establishment that allowed a man as power-hungry and morally bankrupt as Cheney to thrive. This is a film with an opinion, and a strong one: the Republican Party is full of corrupt and callous men, and Dick Cheney, puppet master of the Bush White House, is their King. It is a case compellingly argued, and for the most part the film manages to pack an incredible amount of information into its narrative without killing the pace or straying into didacticism.
Performances are all one would expect from a cast of this calibre, with a barely-recognisable Bale somehow making the unsympathetic, uncharismatic Cheney into a nonetheless compelling protagonist. Amy Adams nails the stern conservative wife, but it’s hard not to think this role was beefed up to showcase her acting prowess, since few of Ms Cheney’s actions have consequence. Most notable of the supporting cast is Rockwell, whose clueless Dubbya is as believable as he is farcical.
It seems strange that one of the defining moments of the twenty first century so far, the War on Terror, would have to be made relevant to today’s audiences, but in our ever-moving political landscape the days of Bush Jr. seem like a different age. McKay succeeds in making this story topical, from the inclusion of footage of current VP Mike Pence speaking in Congress to briefly explaining the formation of ISIS, and posits that Cheney is responsible for setting the stage for the migrant crisis and the present cruelties of Trump’s America. As the film ends with a warning that the legal advice used by Cheney to avoid accountability can be cited as precedent by any future President, it is impossible to deny that the story of an unscrupulous politician using the powers of the President to subvert the law is frightfully timely.
Vice opens in UK cinemas on 25th January 2019.