Jack Bottomley, Media Correspondent
The Bush administration, even in this modern day calamity that we now find ourself, has had reverberations that still persist. Financial fallout, war on terror, conspiracy and scandals still swell in the consciousness of the Western world and after unleashing his fourth wall breaking techniques to tell the story of the US housing bubble (and the financial crisis it triggered) in the Oscar winning The Big Short, writer/director Adam McKay is back with a new target. The man behind the Bush years, the most powerful and prolific vice-president perhaps in US history, Dick Cheney.
Vice, tells the story of how Cheney (Christian Bale) went from heavy drinking Yale dropout to pulling the strings in the most powerful house in America. Meta, ambitious and dizzyingly paced, this is very much a divisive film. The fragmented narrative process and the way the story is relayed can be assaulting and disorientating but the disordered storytelling of McKay’s biopic is likely deliberate, as the film aims to reflect the equally un-linear mind of its central figure, who often thinks 10 steps ahead of the competition.
Certain audiences may still be exhausted by the techniques deployed though, as the stages of Cheney’s life sometimes inter-link and the approach the film takes may disrupt the flow of the story for some, rendering this a little too stylistic for some tastes but if you go with this process, you will find Vice is an intense, well researched and as a result anger-inducing, motion-picture.
Whatever side of the fence you fall on with Cheney, McKay’s film will draw strong emotions, as it - quite literally - gets to the core of the man and revels in the bold opposition between heart and Machiavellian mind, particularly in a late narrative twist that literally brings that theme to the forefront. How much of it is fresh news will depend on your interest in the subjects raised but it is engrossing stuff and some may feel that Cheney unfairly takes the full blame here for all the evils of a wide administration.
But, this is the man who once chuckled when signing a waterboarding kit (in Sacha Baron Cohen’s jaw dropping Who is America?), so fair game and this wild biopic really does get its hooks in you (appropriately, considering the movie’s running fishing metaphor).
A quasi-documentary laced with allegory, on the nose firebrand fierceness and artistic license, as scathing pictures are painted of the Iraq conflict, 9/11 and earlier Republican administrations Cheney worked in (Nixon, Regan, etc.) and McKay opts for straight punches in his satirical dissection of this controversial man and his work. Like Fahrenheit 9/11 meets JFK with the kind of similar sadistic theatrical influences of other true story pictures like Bronson or The Wolf of Wall Street, Vice is knowingly over-the-top, biased, provocative and almost purposefully extreme (or is it) in its presentation.
Torture, moral decay and lies swirl about onscreen but most lingering - and disturbingly universal - are the displays of how power and a relentless pursuit of legacy can lead to an abandonment of core beliefs and even family. Yet, despite some truly distressing content and real imagery, Vice is spattered with darkly comic moments (best of which is a restaurant scene) and well-timed statements, especially in how the film paints the mass public as being blinded by the performances of charlatans, as opposed to seeing the underlying truth.
A post-credits scene further anchors such points, painting a troubling picture of a millennial junk food cyber culture who are sat in the midst of conflict and oblivious to it, while distancing the film from being pro-Liberal, so much as pro-decency. We surely are doomed to keep repeating history, the more we allow ourselves to be hooked in by political storytellers, re-writing the rules as they so wish and Vice is perfectly indicative of this.
McKay allows the acid to flow, as the rich are taken care of and the unscrupulous are handed the keys to people’s lives (and the weapons to end them). His images are often striking and the metaphors are plentiful, as the film visually races along and the web-like structure of the story takes you on a bruising journey through war (Vietnam, Iraq), media frenzy and unethical governance. Vice is both darkly funny and head shakingly unsettling, as Nichola Brittle’s effective score orchestrates a masterful atmosphere, at points evoking the feel of John Frizzell’s work on Alien: Resurrection and in some aptly heinous moments it feels like this is indeed a work of violent, monstrous, fiction...sadly the worst bits are the most truthful.
Christian Bale’s latest transformation works in every way, as Greg Cannom’s make-up is staggering and renders the chameleon-like actor virtually unrecognisable, while Bale blisters with his bouts of cruelty, often forcing us to question whether we still buy the routine and at brief times even daring to ask us whether we can have sympathy for “the devil”? In this performance Bale remarkably captures the essence of the real thing, going at the material like a silent assassin, a calm killer, a near Bond-villain-like master of manipulation through observation. The scariest moments here are not in the growled, considered dialogue or on the battlefield but in the piercing gazes and unnerving mannerisms, where the predator sizes up the mental make-up of his unsuspecting prey.
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Purposefully made to confront and in spite of the mixed responses surrounding it, McKay’s audacious tackling of Cheney’s professional and personal life is arguably the only way to handle the life and times of a man who has imprinted the landscape far beyond the realms of the positions he held. As Bale throws himself into the part and really is the devil in disguise!
The vital Vice opens with mad drunken wailing of people and closes with the more metaphorical wailing of the American dream, which was once considered healthy but now has a black mass in the lung, as it is less a breath of hope and more on a wheeze of opportunism and immorality. What could be more timely? Worse still, it’s not just America suffering this way either.
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe
Release Date: Out Now
Review: Vice, 8th February 2019, 10:44 AM