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Film Review: Vice

Director:    Adam McKay

Cast:    Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, Lisagay Hamilton, Jesse Plemons

Rating:    MA

Running Time:    132

Australian Distributor:     Entertainment One


Adam McKay’s film announces its central problem in a title card before the images even start to flicker, admitting the film is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history. But we did our f**king best.” So encapsulates the ensuing 130 minutes: a self-admission that this enterprise is devoid of any legitimate depth, but at least it’s spiked with some smirking humour.

Vice pitches itself as a comprehensive tell-all; a juicy, epic cataloguing of the Bush-Cheney administration’s atrocities, but that doesn’t square with its simultaneous framing as a singular character study of Cheney the person.   

It opens with a young Cheney getting pulled over for drunk driving and ends with a defiant Cheney addressing the audience directly, refusing to apologise for his actions and claiming to have been chosen by the people to serve.

It must be said that Christian Bale, under tons of make-up and with a harsh, whispery intone – almost like his Batman voice – brings the incarnation of former Vice President Dick Cheney to life with astonishing credibility. Bale’s Cheney is as condescending as we painfully remember him, with his unconditional love for his wife and daughters providing the only glimpse of humanity in an otherwise inhuman being.

Sam Rockwell’s take on George W. Bush is excellent – really in his element – but his screen time is limited.  Amy Adams gives the film’s most intriguing performance as Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife, on whom McKay’s screenplay goes down a few different motivational avenues, from scarred victim to stolid judgmental leviathan to complicit power consolidator. Steve Carell also is very good as Donald Rumsfeld.

With these actors in the hands of McKay, the film presents itself as a dark comedy. The problem, of course, is that it’s not funny. Whether because of the inherent nature of its subject or the film’s too busy structure, the end result feels more sickening than anything else. Explaining something like the financial crisis of 2008 was almost like artistic public service for McKay. Vice fails to provide any real insight into who Cheney is or what motivates him.

So while the two lead actors are impeccable, it also proceeds through a standard “this happened and then that happened” structure, which hits all the major events in Cheney’s career and life without delving too deeply into any of them. The hardest-hitting segments are when McKay cuts away to the collateral damage caused by some of Cheney’s more reckless and overconfident policies, particularly the Iraq occupation and all the carnage and mayhem that engendered.

Vice wants to make the case for why we need to avoid the likes of Dick Cheney, a mostly amoral man with little regard for other human beings and no respect for the limits of power, but it can’t quite decide how it wants to present its argument. Consequently, McKay has made a mess of an already painful history.


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