Review: Vice (2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by: Adam McKay | 133 minutes | biography, comedy | Actors: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Tyler Perry

Mike Pence. Does that name mean anything to you? Then you are one of the few who know that he is the Vice President of the United States under Donald Trump. While Pence played an inconspicuous role, it was different in the presidential years under George W. Bush. We all know Dick Cheney. He has been called by some the most powerful American politician who never made it to president. Years of experience as a Congressman, White House Chief of Staff (at 34, he was the youngest ever to hold this role) and Secretary of Defense, he became the second man behind the inexperienced Bush junior to become unprecedentedly influential. Insiders believe that behind the scenes he was the one pulling the strings and that George W. was just a front man. He was the one who decided under false pretenses to start a new war against Iraq, which allowed torture methods to be allowed during interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and further expanded the power of the White House. That is certainly the opinion that filmmaker Adam McKay takes. The man behind ‘The Big Short’ (2015), the film that turned the credit crisis into bite-sized chunks and that won the writer / director the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, fits the same tropes in his political satire ‘Vice’ (2018). as in ‘The Big Short’; even now the viewer is sometimes directly addressed by the characters and certain complicated terms are explained in a clear, often comical way.

In “Vice” none other than Christian Bale takes the role of Dick Cheney. We see how in his college years he drank more than he was in books. Yet in the years that followed he would grow into a crafty politician who worked his way to the plush in a sophisticated way. His wife Lynne (Amy Adams) is considered to be a great booster. After being kicked off Yale because of his drinking problem and then caught driving under the influence, she manages to convince him that he should change course. Five years later, we see him interning at the White House, as an assistant to Donald Rumsfeldt (Steve Carrell), at the time one of President Nixon’s chief advisers. When he overhears the talks between the president and his security adviser Henry Kissinger about a covert attack on Cambodia, he really realizes what political power is and where it lies: not so much in plain sight, but behind the scenes. It is the beginning of Cheney’s inexhaustible pursuit of power, which eventually leads him to the running mate of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell); at the heart of world political power.

Although the events are based on true facts, it is clear that McKay looks at the events with his own left-wing glasses. In a sometimes mischievous, but sometimes also vile way, he hints at this opinion with the alienating style elements that we know of him. For example, by suggesting with early passing credits that it would have been better for the US and the world if Cheney had withdrawn from politics prematurely. There’s also a hilarious scene in which Dick and his wife suddenly burst into Shakespearean sentences in response to the careless, straightforward language we expect in everyday life. The role of the narrator (Jesse Plemons) also has some surprises in store, and Cheney’s heart disease makes McKay a running gag. Not to mention the festive dinner that Cheney and his associates hold a bacchanalian in which they are presented with all sorts of controversial things as if they were dishes. Restricting the rights of prisoners? Waterboarding? Kidnappings? Scoop everything up! A bone-dry subject such as politics (and earlier in “The Big Short” thus also the credit crisis) suddenly becomes a lot less heavy with such an absurdist and imaginative sauce. It also underlines that McKay does not take Cheney and his lust for power and political affiliation too seriously; he laughs about it. Like a farmer with a toothache, yes, because see where Cheney’s decisions have all led to.

Despite this, McKay also tries to give his central character some depth. For example, he refused to vote against gay marriage, out of love for his lesbian daughter Mary. The director also grants Cheney the last word to the viewer, asking the rhetorical question: what would you have done if you had been in this position? “I make no apologies for protecting your family.” Christian Bale (awarded a Golden Globe for this role) subunderwent a transformation – “Vice” was awarded the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hair Styling – and is completely unrecognizable. On paper it is difficult to play Cheney, because the best man looks and sounds more boring than boring. Seen in that light, Bale performs optimally here, because he equals the colorlessness of Cheney, but without becoming colorless himself. McKay also emphasizes Lynne’s role in the whole; it was she who managed to transform Cheney from an alcoholic good-for-nothing to an ambitious politician. Wanting to impress her, he went to extremes. Like Bale, the ever-great Amy Adams also earned an Oscar nomination for her role. So does Sam Rockwell, who is a wonderfully confused and ignorant Bush Jr. put down. In total, there were eight nominations (in addition to the mentioned categories, “Vice” also competed for best film, director, original screenplay and montage) from the Academy, plus a whole series of other accolades. Justly? Yes, because despite the sometimes oversimplified and subjective view that McKay takes here at one of the most important American politicians of the past decades, with “Vice” he manages to bring a dusty theme and a dusty main character to the man in a refreshing way.

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