Why Vice should win the best picture Oscar

Best film of the year – or worst? Opinion is deeply divided, but the Dick Cheney biopic, starring a chunky Christian Bale, is as hilarious as it is grotesque

The Favourite, Black Panther, Roma and more: read the rest of our best picture Oscar hustings

It’s difficult to remember an Oscar nominee that prompted a range of reactions quite like Vice, Adam McKay’s account of the squalid rise to power of George W Bush’s right-hand-man Dick Cheney. Some people think it’s the year’s best film, others think its among the worst, and others still reckon it’s a threat to the very notion of truth itself. Small wonder then that a movie this polarising is unlikely to become the consensus pick for the best picture Oscar: you can get odds as long as 125/1 for a Vice win.

Here’s the thing though: Vice’s very contentiousness is the reason that it would make an interesting and timely best picture winner. This is a film that is designed to stir the pot, to rattle cages, to instigate uncomfortable heated arguments in cinema lobbies. It’s a film that instead of blandly asking, “Why can’t we just get along” explains bluntly why we don’t.

Christian Bale, embarking on one of his frequent “dramatic transformations”, stars as Cheney, a figure who seems to have a Zelig-like ability to pop up at every formative event of the modern Republican party, from the dying days of the Nixon administration, through the rise of Reagan and the violent lurch rightward of the supreme court, and finally to the Bush administration, where the quarter-century political long game he has been playing finally and spectacularly bears fruit.

As vice-president to Sam Rockwell’s grinning, inane George W Bush, he is able to spectacularly reconfigure the role in his favour, accruing dull-seeming duties that together form a supergroup of unchecked powers, powers that – cheered on by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, playing the role as sort-of Lady Macbeth of the midwest) – he uses to pursue plutocracy, military adventurism and corruption. (The double meaning of the film’s title, in keeping with so much else in this film, is unapologetically, thuddingly on the nose.)

Grinningly inane … Christian Bale with Sam Rockwell as George Bush.
Grinningly inane … Christian Bale with Sam Rockwell as George Bush. Photograph: Allstar/Annapurna Pictures

Inevitably, there’s been more attention on Bale’s physical transformation than his acting. Certainly he looks spectacularly chunky – perhaps more rotund than Cheney himself ever was. But more impressive is the compelling stillness of his performance. At times he seems to barely move at all, beyond the agile flickering of his eyes, calculating his next nefarious move.

Some of Vice’s many critics have suggested that this Cheney is too cartoonishly villainous – that there’s nothing more to him than a grasping pursuit of power for power’s sake. But, in recent years, “power for power’s sake” is a pretty accurate summing up of the Republican party, whose long-held positions (budget deficits, free trade, Russia) have miraculously reversed now Trump is in charge; all that matters these days, it seems, is winning. Indeed, Vice is keen to point out the ominous through line from its subject to Trump, who as commander in chief has a chilling arsenal of powers to call on thanks to Cheney’s assiduous work in building up the supremacy of the office. (This, as you might have guessed, is not a film that is afraid to show its political biases.)

Like McKay’s previous film The Big Short, Vice aims to explain a big knotty idea in as hyperactive and eye-catching a manner as possible. This is a chuck-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks sort of film, with each scene seeming to operate with a different conceit or gimmick; fourth-wall-breaking monologues, unreliable narrators, at least one florid, mock-Shakespearean two-hander. Not everything works – the less said the better about an enragingly condescending post-credits scene that mocks younger viewers for watching Fast and Furious films instead of paying attention to politics – but there’s plenty that does. What’s more, as with a sketch comedy, if there’s a bit you don’t like, you can just wait for the next one to come along a few minutes later.

And Vice is frequently very funny, full of the same sort of grotesque, antic farce seen in McKay’s straight-up comedies such as Anchorman and The Other Guys. Steve Carell has fun with the cackling, jackal-like Donald Rumsfeld, as does Rockwell as a stunningly dense Dubya. And Bale – an actor usually associated with self-important seriousness – gets some of the biggest laughs as Cheney, particularly in the recurring gag where he calmly and cheerily announces that he is having another heart attack (Cheney has managed five so far), and should maybe, you know just as a precaution, go to the hospital.

Vice is not a perfect film; nor, you suspect, was it intended to be. Instead, it’s an overstuffed, scattershot effort that swings for the fences, and occasionally misses. But I’d certainly take something with ambition and daring over the bland biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book. It’s well worth your Oscar consideration. Just switch it off before that post-credits scene rolls.


Gwilym Mumford

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Why Bohemian Rhapsody should win the best picture Oscar
It was panned by the critics but the Freddie Mercury biopic has proven a hit with cinemagoers. Did critics get it wrong?

Alex Needham

21, Feb, 2019 @9:51 AM

Article image
Oscar nominations 2019: Roma and The Favourite deserve acclaim, but no female directors is woeful
The Academy consensus has produced two blue chip frontrunners, but passed over some exceptional films directed by women in the process

Peter Bradshaw

22, Jan, 2019 @4:00 PM

Article image
Royals, rogues and Rudolf Nureyev: the best films of 2019
Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney, Nicole Kidman goes undercover, Olivia Colman is Queen Anne and Timothée Chalamet gets addicted to meth

Peter Bradshaw

02, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
First trailer released for Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale
The actor has gained 40lbs to play the former Vice President in a starry take on White House wranglings from The Big Short director Adam McKay

Guardian Film

03, Oct, 2018 @3:28 PM

Article image
Vice review – ambitious, amusing, but confused portrait of Dick Cheney
Despite a wickedly deft performance from Christian Bale, Adam McKay’s film can’t settle on a consistent tone

Wendy Ide

26, Jan, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Vice review – Christian Bale hilarious as toad-like VP Dick Cheney
Bale brilliantly captures the former vice-president’s bland magnificence in Adam McKay’s entertainingly nihilist biopic

Peter Bradshaw

17, Dec, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Why BlacKkKlansman should win the best picture Oscar
Spike Lee’s politically charged cinema has irked the Academy in the past, but his witty take on how a black policeman outsmarted the Ku Klux Klan could prove sweetly timed

Lanre Bakare

20, Feb, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Why Roma should win the best picture Oscar
In the first of our series of best picture Oscar hustings, here’s the case for Alfonso Cuarón’s novelistic jewel about race, class and culture in Mexico City

Peter Bradshaw

13, Feb, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Why Black Panther should win the best picture Oscar
A genuine achievement that is gripping, smart and woke, this superhero movie with a mainly black cast, will never win best picture, but it deserves to

Hadley Freeman

14, Feb, 2019 @11:27 AM

Article image
Why A Star is Born should win the best picture Oscar
Once the clear frontrunner, Bradley Cooper’s musical romance now seems doomed. A victim of its own shortcomings or the environment it now finds itself in?

Catherine Shoard

19, Feb, 2019 @12:47 PM