When I hear the name “Dick Cheney,” the very reaction elicited from myself is one of intense hatred. But for as long as I’ve been alive, there’s no other United States president that I despise to that same level that I do George W. Bush. So before watching Vice, I was unsure about what exactly to expect out of how Adam McKay brought the story of his vice to the big screen. If one person were to make a film about one of the most despised recent American political figures, the last person I would ever expect to take on this story is Adam McKay had he not made The Big Short prior. Although McKay started off with comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, there’s a very level of anger present in these recent films that seems to come from a very perspective that almost feels so underestimated because of McKay’s own background. But maybe that background ever feels so vital to describing what political debate has already boiled itself down to at this point, and McKay clearly isn’t happy about where any of it has gone by now.
Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in this sort-of biopic about the infamous Vice President of the United States, as the film covers his start as a powerful businessman before working at the White House under the presidency of George H. W. Bush, to that point where he becomes asked by George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) to become his own vice. Normally, a film much like this covering the story of a man so despicable should not be one that draws my interest and yet Vice doesn’t even lend itself to the conventional biopic format – for Adam McKay already feels that Cheney isn’t even worthy of that. It’s a film that never loses touch of its relentlessness in depicting the presidency of George W. Bush, compared to Oliver Stone’s own portrayal in W., but McKay’s own comedic touch to this story even makes clear something more terrifying underneath. Cheney was a monster, but beyond what he did during as a member of the White House, McKay doesn’t make Vice solely about the damage he’s done during his own tenure – it’s a film that makes fun even of the narrow-mindedness that fuels our political climate too, especially from conservatives.
McKay has always been a left-wing filmmaker, but the way in which he captures the conservative point of view in Vice is something that doesn’t only show its own vitriol towards the ignorance that has fuelled what people come to see as being “rational.” Of course, it’s all one big joke to Adam McKay – up until that very point where it isn’t anymore. Perhaps you can also say that was the exact job he had behind the camera for The Big Short, even to that point he had celebrity cameos explain how corrupted the system is – and with Vice he strikes back with the ability to mock what the George W. Bush administration had eventually made of the current state of American politics. His anger doesn’t only keep itself limited there, because McKay has also shown us in Vice what it is that constitutes how modern political discussions follow along – even to that point it becomes a matter of buzzwords being flung at the other. The moment it bites you, it becomes no laughing matter anymore. You see these sorts of talks all coming down to the same circles, a competition of the theoretically impossible. But McKay laughs at these people who insinuate such behaviour, for the stupidity is funny in real life as it is on the screen.
For a conservative viewer, what Adam McKay creates here is a nightmare – as a matter of fact, this is the sort of film that I highly doubt would be attracting a conservative audience in any way, shape or form. But even McKay finds a way to poke right at that too, given the very ideas that make up how they idealize Hollywood. Adam McKay is already aware of this, but the delivery that he allows Vice to take on also lends itself nicely as a flipping of the bird to the sort of people that blindly defend the Republican party because they believe everything against them to be something that carries a “liberal bias” and everything that their party espouses to be “the facts, which don’t care about your feelings.” Even by this extent, McKay’s approach is never one that shows itself to be black-and-white, even from the left-wing perspective that he adds to his own showcase of the story of how Dick Cheney became the most ruthless Vice President of recent memory. McKay is not afraid of the response he knows he would get from conservative viewers, but his willingness to address the very lack of rationality as a result in this instance makes for perfectly biting social commentary about whose views are worth trusting. It’s tongue-in-cheek and maybe a bit cruel yet I love how it plays itself out, because that’s what such people deserve.
The casting of Christian Bale as Dick Cheney is quite a choice, but I hold nothing against it by any means because of how dedicated he is to this transformation. But even as a man as awful as Dick Cheney, Christian Bale still finds a way to make one of the most despicable men in recent American history never feel so one-dimensional, which Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour hit me as. This isn’t a performance that is defined by the makeup that he wears, nor is it a performance defined by how well someone as young as Bale could convince people he has indeed transformed into a man in his 70’s, but this is also a performance that rings out loud, “Yeah, that’s totally the man I despised for so long.” It’s a performance that Bale truly lends himself to, one that doesn’t only feel as if McKay approached it like it were any other biopic that follows a blind sense of patriotism – because the very opposite is what we’re getting out of Vice. In simpler terms, it’s everything that Gary Oldman’s performance from Darkest Hour failed to be, one that really sells under the heavy makeup, but its director refused to celebrate him, something missing from said film. Yet in a sense the casting of Bale works further to create the perfect parody of that sort of biopic too, and there’s no better person to lash at in this style than Dick Cheney.
While a great performance from Christian Bale is expected, the many other members of the Republican party are also given the same treatment by the many stars allowing a screen presence to shine. In the role of George W. Bush is none other than Sam Rockwell, a role that fits too well for him after having just played racist police officer Dixon in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But in the role of Bush, Rockwell doesn’t only show a cartoonish portrait of the infamous United States President on the screen but a very reflection of the immorality of American values that pervade the way its citizens continue to grow into over time. Another standout in the cast comes present in none other than Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, as probably the most hateful character that she has ever played on the screen – not that it’s any surprising. Yet it’s also a perfect showcase for her own range as a star, being able to carry a likeable presence and lending herself into a character so despicable it’s simply unbelievable what she can pull off on the spot. But it’s also quite stunning as is on Adam McKay’s part that he can sell actors who are generally likeable onscreen as people so despicable, but in making a comedy about such people he never lets go of that hatred.
This rise for someone like Adam McKay from being a writer on Saturday Night Live to directing films like Anchorman and Step Brothers as he becomes one of America’s most vibrantly political filmmakers is not entirely unexpected, but with Vice he finds himself facing one of his greatest challenges yet. To make a film about Dick Cheney would be one thing, but to make something that so clearly hates everything that his rise to power has done to America in the years since, especially in a time where political discourse can even come at the cost of one’s own grasp at rationality – there’s an outstanding achievement on the spot right there. I’m still in awe at the sort of filmmaker that Adam McKay has become, but I certainly would not be against seeing more films of this sort come within due time coming from him. If there’s anything that Adam McKay’s own shift in pace tells me, it would be that maybe a voice that needs to be in the spotlight can come from just about anywhere that you wouldn’t normally look. After watching Vice, I’m certainly left to say this, I really fucking hate Dick Cheney. Do I despise him far more than I already did after seeing this though? I just know he’ll forever remain that sort of person I view him to be, one whose damage already left a scar whose wounds are too badly burnt into the skin to be healed. I have my own ideas of what it is that Cheney deserves but even the worst that McKay shows you here is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Annapurna Pictures.
Directed by Adam McKay
Screenplay by Adam McKay
Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Megan Ellison, Kevin J. Messick, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Running Time: 138 minutes