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

With his last film, The Big Short, Adam McKay achieved the near-impossible: he made a fizzingly entertaining movie about mortgages. Buoyed by this success, he set himself another formidable challenge, this time to craft a revealing portrait of a man who habitually revealed nothing: ruthlessly ambitious political animal and former US vice-president Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). But as numerous colleagues and opponents would no doubt concur, Cheney is a tricky man to pin down.

With no other option available – Cheney was as scrupulous in covering his tracks as he was calculating in his power grab – McKay makes a virtue of the known unknowns of this slice of US political history. Winking over the fourth wall in acknowledgement that the true facts of certain encounters will never be known, the screenplay then propels the film off into comic fantasy – Cheney and his wife, Lynne (a chillingly chipper Amy Adams), speak in faux-Shakespearean verse at one point; a fake set of closing titles roll at another.

It’s an ambitious piece of writing, certainly, springy with ideas and information. But whereas the screenplay for The Big Short, which McKay co-wrote with Charles Randolph, deftly negotiated the dense, often very dry material, here there is a slightly frantic top note to McKay’s trademark wryly satirical tone.

This is increasingly evident later in the picture. There are moments in the third act that feel like a panicked exam paper – all blurted facts and the thread of the argument long lost.

Under a doughy layer of prosthetics that make him look like a malevolent potato, Bale is physically transformed for the role. Even so, McKay often chooses to shroud his face in darkness. Cheney, he suggests, is a man who operated most comfortably in the shadows. Likewise, the director has fun with Cheney’s fondness for fly fishing, dropping shots of lurking pike and catfish into the movie like lures. It’s a piece of symbolism that is telegraphed perhaps a little too obviously: Cheney is a slippery fish.

Watch a trailer for Vice.

But what of Bale’s performance, which received one of the film’s eight Oscar nominations last week? The voice, with its smooth edges and dangerous authority, is spot on. Bale peppers his delivery with unexpected mid-sentence pauses that hang there, as empty and ominous as a hangman’s noose. There’s something of the mafia don in Bale’s take on Cheney: the impassive Corleone bulk; that curt, life-ruining nod of dismissal. But there are also moments, mined for humour, when the performance tips over into cartoon villain territory. Bale credited “Satan” for inspiration for the role, and it shows. Sam Rockwell’s wicked impersonation of George W Bush, positioned here as a comic foil, is also Oscar-nominated; however, amusing as the performance is, I found it a little one-note.

A more serious complaint is an initially glib, sarcastic spin on the story that is at odds with an ending that loosely ties Cheney’s tenure to pretty much everything that’s currently wrong with the world. A final barrage of images of environmental catastrophe, migrant tragedy, civil unrest and more sends the film swerving into a much darker place. It’s almost as if McKay talked himself into a 180-degree pivot, and finally realised that Dick Cheney is no laughing matter after all.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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