Vice

Who ate all the Vice? Christian Bale piles on the pounds as Dick Cheney
Verdict: 
7/10 – An excellent performance from Christian Bale isn’t enough to save this uneven biopic.
Release Date: 
Friday, January 25, 2019
Written by: 

Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney in this star-studded biopic of controversial U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

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Dick Cheney is one of the most notorious and yet enigmatic figures of modern times - and with his new film Vice, writer and director Adam McKay has brought the story of the man who was the power behind George W. Bush's presidency to the big screen.

Cheney (Christian Bale) is an unlikely subject for a biopic. Gruff, rotund, bald and lacking in natural charisma, he was installed as Bush's pick for Vice President because of his credentials as a safe Republican bureaucrat who could keep his boss on the straight and narrow.

That all changed on September 11, 2001, the fateful day on which the film opens, when, with the President airborne, he took charge of the response to the attack that would spark the War on Terror - a response that would lead to him being blamed as an architect of policies including torture, imprisonment without trial, as well as the bloody and destabilising war in Iraq.

Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a narrator who claims to be "related" to Cheney, sets out the central question and theme of McKay's film in this opening - telling us that getting inside the head of this mysterious and unlovable man is essential, as his actions are some of the most consequential in modern history.

The film flashes back to Wyoming in 1963, where young Dick works fixing powerlines having dropped out of Yale University due to his drinking.

In trouble with the law and in danger of losing his ambitious "best girl" Lynne (Amy Adams), he resolves to clean up his life.

We then move on to 1969, when having sobered up and completed his studies, Cheney heads to Washington D.C. as an intern and hitches himself to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), a rising but unpopular star in the Nixon administration. Working for Rumsfeld, he learns the value of loyalty, willingness to push legal boundaries, and power. These equip him to follow and eventually surpass his mentor by rising in the Republican party and serving as a Chief of Staff, a congressman, and Secretary of Defense during the Ford, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush presidencies, and eventually running alongside the latter's son.

Bale's performance as Cheney is utterly extraordinary, as over the years we watch him thicken out from bumbling but loyal lapdog to the jowly rottweiler he became. His portrayal as the latter incarnation is uncanny and is more than a weighty impersonation. Sometimes, he's almost a better Cheney than the man himself, capturing on screen the darkness that made the man's media image far more menacing than his 5-foot 8-inch stature or irascible bank clerk looks would suggest.

Adams is also superb - depicting Lynne as a homely Lady Macbeth figure - one whose quiet pushing of her man is ultimately far more successful than her Shakespearean counterpart. She and Dick even indulge in a little iambic pentameter while plotting in bed.

In spite of its stars' excellence, Vice fails to fully grasp its subject matter. The jokes and explainers covering technical concepts like 'Unitary Executive Theory' (a legal justification for presidents having almost unlimited power), that worked in McKay's previous film The Big Short overcomplicate matters that are best understood as raw amoral power plays. The narration also feels like both a shortcut and, after a reveal about Kurt's connection to Cheney, a fairly tasteless gimmick, that sits alongside a running joke about the Vice President's susceptibility to heart attacks.

Occasional bad taste isn't necessarily a problem. This is, after all, Dick Cheney we're talking about. What is less forgivable is that despite Bale's stellar performance we learn little new about Cheney's motivations and character - as the director whizzes through scenes that drop in with various members of the Republican rogues' gallery.

While the film briefly delves into his relationship with his openly lesbian daughter Mary, it's not explored fully other than in the context of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asking him to be a running mate - even though this was arguably the only time America's eminence grise put his humanity above the pursuit of power.

It's typical of the way introspection is avoided in favour of barbed jokes and clever references. All are perfectly justified given the individuals they're aimed at.

However, as a result, Vice fails to answer the question it sets itself in its dramatic opening scene by not delving deeply enough into Dick Cheney's heart of darkness.

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