Vice: The Film We Need or a Political Misfire?

Written by Jake Mason |

Adam McKay returns with another semi-serious, semi-comedy, semi-docudrama Vice, a film about the rise of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in American politics.

Many people in the UK do not know a lot about former Vice-President Dick Cheney, myself included, and the film is aware of this. It opens on a pseudo apology, stating that Cheney’s time in power was so secretive that nobody really knows exactly what went down in the White House during Cheney’s time there. This begs the question, is the film worth seeing?

There is some clever direction employed here by McKay, who is best known for his collaborations with Will Ferrell. Cheney, a more insidious character, is often positioned in the background or in the shadows, observing, waiting for precisely the right time to attack. This further reinforces the element of mystery McKay associates with Cheney. This is even hinted at in the film’s poster, Cheney looks past the camera as a simple black silhouette.

‘Vice’ Annapurna Pictures. Adam McKay

The cast are all terrific. It goes without saying that Bale is phenomenal as Cheney. He plays him with a look of meticulous planning, a man who was always several steps ahead of everybody else, working out what personal gain he can acquire from every situation he finds himself in. Sam Rockwell as George Bush Jr. is delightfully buffoonish though does not feel too dissimilar from his previous big role as racist cop Dixon in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. He bagged his Academy Award playing a dim southerner, so it would be nice to see him get recognition for a different kind of role. Amy Adams is, as always, fantastic. With her playing Lynne Cheney, it becomes clear that the film is almost just as much about Lynne than it is Dick. The fact that Adams is yet to win an Oscar feels absurd.

People seem to be criticising this film for relying too much upon narration and fourth wall breaks to explain certain more complicated aspects of the film. I do not have an issue with this, as with McKay’s previous film The Big Short, the story is simply too complicated for McKay to rely upon us to figure it out on our own.

However, this is where my main criticism of the film lies. The reason why the fourth wall breaks worked in The Big Short was because the characters were larger than life meaning that shattering the fourth wall felt natural and tonally fit better within the story. Vice wants to convey to the audience that the quieter politicians, those like Cheney, are the more insidious ones, the ones we should really fear. To go from this to a goofy fourth wall break felt tonally conflicting.

‘Vice’ Annapurna Pictures. Adam McKay

The filmmaking can often feel overly frivolous in places, as if just for a minute, McKay returns to a style of filmmaking he used in his older more comedy heavy films such as Step Brothers or The Other Guys. There are two sequences in the film that are most guilty of this. One in which the narrator states that the story is not a Shakespearean narrative and then the film takes a brief aside to imagine this, Bale and Adams start talking in old English, bringing to mind images of Macbeth. There is also a fake out ending in which the film makes up a hyperbolic happy ending for the characters and the credits begin to roll. Surprisingly, these were not very funny, the audience chuckled for the first few seconds of both moments, but they quickly dissipated. The film is already two hours and twelve minutes and could have done without these moments.

Vice has garnered an amazing eight Oscar nominations. Where this is well-earned for the acting categories, Bale, Adams and Rockwell all receiving nods, this does not entirely feel earnt elsewhere. McKay has been nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay which does not feel very justified. Although his work on the film is competent, there are too many questionable decisions made by McKay to make his nominations feel deserved. It would have been nice to have seen Boots Riley receive this nomination instead for his biting satire Sorry to Bother You but, alas, the Academy is still struggling with its issues surrounding race and unconventional filmmaking. The film’s nomination for Best Picture makes perfect sense considering Hollywood’s association with left wing politics and McKay’s political activism on Twitter.

Returning to the posed question from the start of the review, is this film worth seeing? Despite its glaring flaws, I would argue yes. The message of the film could not feel more relevant. In this era of blundering world leaders, Vicereminds us that they are not really the politicians we should be cautious of. We should be cautious of those hidden in the wings, lurking behind the scenes, the ones with a more frightening agenda than news coverage. Though Cheney is no longer working, there are politicians still there, just like him.

Vice is in cinemas now.