Movie Review

'Vice': heavily Oscar-nominated Dick Cheney biopic lives up to the hype

The year has just begun, but this film deserves its early place on the list of 2019's best

03 February 2019 - 00:04
Christian Bale, who gained more than 20kg to play George W Bush's shadowy, Machiavellian vice-president Dick Cheney in Adam Mackay's 'Vice'.
Christian Bale, who gained more than 20kg to play George W Bush's shadowy, Machiavellian vice-president Dick Cheney in Adam Mackay's 'Vice'.
Image: Annapurna Pictures 2018

It seems so long ago, but remember when it seemed as if the worst thing that could happen to the most powerful country in the world was epitomised by the Alfred E Neumann-like bumbling idiocy of George W Bush? Well, let Adam McKay - who began his career making slapstick Will Ferrell films before his breakout dissection of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short - remind you of a time before Donald Trump, when the world was irreparably screwed up, not by Bush but by the neo-conservative Ayn Rand-worshipping assholes in the shadows who pulled the strings.

Chief among these ruthless, selfish-capitalist dark lords was the clench-jawed, Machiavellian Dick Cheney, quietly amused by the bigger picture no one else could quite see. He was Bush's vice-president and the real power behind the throne.

When the events of September 11 2001 provided an opportunity for Cheney and his neo-con cabal to turn a tragedy to their economic and geopolitical advantage they seized it and made sure that no one - not even the nominal leader of the free world George Dubya - would stand in their way.

The consequences of Cheney's ruthless hunger for power are still felt in the Middle East and have lasted longer and had greater impact than any piece of Obama oratory or midnight rambling Donald Trump tweets.

As he did in his approach to the seemingly inscrutable machinations of the financial crisis - McKay uses a bag of postmodern tricks in order to dissect the myth of Cheney through the lens of hindsight in an age in which Oliver Stone editing and breaking the fourth wall are the norm rather than the exception. Some might argue that McKay's bouncing-off-the-walls, attention-deficit-disorder technique provides much sound and fury but little significant insight into its subject.

But at the moment, McKay's darkly humorous and Drunk History-style approach is a refreshing reminder of how to utilise the unique aspects of film to create a biopic that does more than simply tell it's A-Z paint by numbers story of a fall and rise to demonic heights.

It does this in a way that's impressively clever and ironic and it's not afraid to allow for an interaction between fact and fiction that feels honest, sometimes flawed but deeply relevant to the moment of its making.

WATCH | The trailer for Vice 

Cheney is notoriously reclusive and media shy - his recent bizarre appearance on Sacha Baron Cohen's Who is America notwithstanding - and so as McKay declares in an opening text, the filmmakers "have tried their fucking best", to examine their subject within the confines of the information that is available.

The rock that keeps this ship from floundering comes in the much-lauded, gob-smacking transformation of Christian Bale, who gives a career-defining, creepily imitative performance as Cheney. Bale has always been drawn to characters who say more in their silence and action than they do when talking, and in Cheney his immersive approach has found a perfect match.

Twenty kilograms heavier and latexed to the gills, Bale creates a Cheney who is both the man we know from television and public appearances but also a terrifyingly determined 21st-century Macbeth. He's handsomely supported by Amy Adams in the role of Lynne Cheney, Steve Carrell as cunning weasel of war Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell, who gives perhaps the best-yet screen impersonation of the hapless Bush.

We may not necessarily come away from Vice feeling that we've learnt much new about Cheney, but we've certainly not seen a life story told with such vigour and sly humour in a very long time. For that and its performances alone, the film deserves its eight Oscar nominations and an early place on the list of the year's best.