vice review

Adam McKay‘s Vice is a funny, infuriating look at the life, times and alleged crimes of Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States. As played brilliantly by a nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale, Cheney is presented as the dark force that drove modern American politics into the ground, essentially creating the nightmare we’re stuck in today. This is an unsubtle, difficult, often depressing film. It’s also one of the year’s best.

Who is Dick Cheney? Former Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Former White House Chief of Staff. Businessman. 46th Vice President of the United States. Cheney was all of these things – but who is he? According to Adam McKay‘s incendiary and unflinchingly critical biopic Vice, Cheney is nothing short of the man who helped send America on a collision course towards political (and social) mayhem. To see McKay tell it, all of our current woes – all the way up to President Donald Trump – can be traced back to Cheney’s dirty deeds.

Cheney isn’t the sole perpetrator of these acts, and indeed, McKay’s film isn’t just a prosecution of the former VP – it’s a scathing indictment of the modern Republican party as a whole, from Ronald Reagan onward. But Cheney is the figurehead. The dark, mysterious monster at the front of it all. The twisted schemer whose heart was so horribly damaged that it failed him several times, until it had to be cut from his body and replaced with the heart of someone else.

Christian Bale plays Cheney, from his youth all the way up through his Vice Presidency. Vice opens with Cheney locked in the situation room as the September 11th attacks are unfolding. With President George W. Bush stuck in the air on Air Force One, Cheney assumes command of the room – and the country. He gives orders he’s technically not authorized to give. And almost no one questions him. How did Cheney get this powerful? Vice hurtles back and forth in time, attempting to find an answer.

In his early days, Cheney is a listless drunk, working as a lineman. At one point, one of his fellow linemen falls from a telephone poll and suffers a compound fracture. Cheney stares down at the protruding bone, a blank look on his face, unmoved, unconcerned. He’s a directionless man, and he might have stayed that way, had it not been for his wife, Lynne (a fierce and fiery Amy Adams). Lynne is the Lady MacBeth of the piece – the person who whips Cheney into shape, and orders him to do something great with his life – or else.

Cheney’s quest for greatness leads him to Washington, D.C., where he lands a job working for blowhard Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, a little too silly here for my liking). Rumsfeld shows Cheney the ropes, but soon, Cheney surpasses his mentor, amassing power, clawing his way to the top, burning down anything that gets in his way. Along this path, McKay throws in a who’s-who of reviled conservative figures – Roger Ailes, the man who would go on to create Fox News pops up; as does future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Little by little, McKay is showing us how the GOP set out to tear things down, spending years cultivating talent, and power.

By the time George W. Bush (a scene-stealing, if underused, Sam Rockwell) shows up to ask Cheney to be his VP, Cheney has retired from political life to run Halliburton. But Cheney realizes the clueless, bumbling Bush can easily be manipulated, allowing him to work behind-the-scenes to become the most powerful Vice President in American history. And that’s just the start.

christian bale in vice

If you’ve followed modern American politics, you likely know the stories McKay’s Vice is telling. But that doesn’t make them any less infuriating. Like McKay’s The Big Short, Vice is presented in a comedic light – and there are some genuinely hilarious moments. But as the film presses on, you might find yourself growing dismayed, and enraged. Because the bottom line is this: in the end, Cheney won. He got away with it all. According to Vice, the man is nothing short of a war criminal. The Iraq War takes up a large portion of the film, with Cheney and Rumsfeld using 9/11 to exploit their greedy quest to invade Iraq for oil. Again: you likely know all this. But seeing it play out on screen will leave you feeling queasy. In many ways, Vice is the feel-bad movie of the holiday season.

Unlike Oliver Stone’s W., which featured similar characters and similar scenarios, Vice is unapologetically political. W. remained oddly neutral about most of Bush and company’s politics, instead focusing on their personal lives. Vice has an axe to grind, though, and it’s highly likely that many will take issue with McKay’s approach here. No one will ever accuse McKay’s method of storytelling of being delicate, and with Vice, he clobbers the audience over the head to drive the point across. Does he go too far? Does he get too literal? Perhaps. But perhaps that’s what this story calls for. Perhaps McKay feels that we, as a society, have let the Dick Cheneys of the world get away with their actions for far too long, and it’s time for a blunt wake-up call. The filmmaker uses montages, fourth-wall-breaks, and other cinematic tricks to make Vice as visually entertaining as possible. If you’re looking for subtlety, turn back now. None of this, however, stops Vice from being one of the best movies of the year.

Bale, as Cheney, is nothing short of astonishing. Overweight and often buried under highly convincing make-up, the actor disappears into the role. He becomes Cheney, right down to the way that Cheney talks out of the side of his mouth. Cheney is a man of few words, allowing Bale to play up the character’s mannerisms, and his cold, unfeeling looks. Bale and Adams work together magnificently, both making their characters their own. Never once do they seem to be acting – they’ve almost literally transformed into the historical figures they’re playing.

To tell Cheney’s story, McKay employs a narrator, played by Jesse Plemons. Who is this mysterious storyteller? For that answer, Vice has a big twist up its sleeve – a twist you’ll either love, or utterly despise. It’s manipulative, and even a little cheap – but it works, mostly thanks to Plemons’ casual, laid-back style of delivering his dialogue.

Is there anything redeemable about Dick Cheney at all? According to Vice, the only real saving grace the former VP had was in his treatment of his daughter Mary (Alison Pill). Mary came out as gay – something that could’ve been politically damaging to the Republican Cheney. But as Vice tells it, Cheney immediately accepted his daughter’s coming-out – while Lynne was less understanding. It’s a surprisingly commendable moment for Cheney – but by the time Vice draws to a close, even this one sign of kindness is slowly eroded away, all in the name of winning. And has Dick Cheney learned anything? Has Dick Cheney reflected on his actions? Does he feel any sort of remorse? Of course not – and why should he? He got away with it all.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net