Vice has functioned as a proverbial earworm in my mind all week. Not a single day has passed without reflecting on the genius what Adam McKay has achieved here. This is a transgressive decimation of the biopic, a magnetic but infuriating ascent from mediocrity to absolute corruption. There are few likable characters in the film. Those who do come off as sympathetic are, ultimately, abettors of a political tyrant driven by most of the seven deadly sins.
One of its opening moments depicts how Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) initially reacts to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), panics for the safety of her nation and husband after the Pentagon was hit. Meanwhile, he storms into the Situation Room and gives the military permission to shoot down any commercial airliner at high altitude. He shows no empathy for sudden tragedy, opting to seize upon a chance to shield the United States from appearing weak by any means necessary.
What follows that glimpse of Cheney sets forth the most ruthless film about American politics in decades. Three years ago, McKay made a bold detour from his comedy roots with The Big Short, an irreverent but apocalyptic tale of the housing crisis that begat the Great Recession of 2008. Vice works not only as an extension of that film but brings McKay full circle. As head writer of Saturday Night Live, he fostered George W. Bush, famously played by Will Ferrell (who also produced this film with McKay under their Gary Sanchez shingle), as an insecure bumpkin who saw the presidency as a self-serving goof.
Vice is the film that McKay has been building to for his entire career. An anarchist’s guide to American history, the film boasts a surplus of surreal tangents in line with the man who popularized Bill Brasky, Ron Burgundy, and the Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer. Early on, the narrator (Jesse Plemons) turns out to be Kurt, a Middle American family man who swears he knows Cheney, continually keeping the audience wondering who the hell this SpongeBob-loving suburbanite is. The Cheneys break a scene to reaffirm their love in Shakespearean English. A ditzy blonde newswoman plays Greek chorus behind the desk of a Fox News-like propaganda outlet.
Not even an hour in, McKay “ends” the film on a high note that props up Cheney and his family as wholesome all-Americans that make the Cleavers look like the Mansons, then rolls the end credits. While McKay has transitioned into more serious territory, he never attempts to make Vice easy Oscar bait, instead playing out Cheney’s life as a stealth parody of awards-season inspiration.
A few years ago, someone told me that to review a film about its awards prospects is a folly. However, I cannot be more confident that Christian Bale will devour every Best Actor award that he’s nominated for from now until the end of February, and he will earn every ounce of gold for his submergence into the role. Bale’s Cheney is a triumph of heightened reality. He’s an iconic cinematic villain, a despot whose cold heart is physically and ideologically corroded. A shrewd, unflappable manipulator, he gleefully watches the tarnishing of his party in the 1970’s as an opening to give Nixonian ratfucking a comeback during the Reagan years.
Lost in the balding, overweight façade of Cheney, Bale’s charisma and intensity compels us not because we want to cheer his opportunism but to draw our attention to how far Cheney can go in his abuse of power. He has an inverted path to redemption, one of consolidating power to the executive branch by exploiting loopholes and pushing the GOP farther to the right. It’s a suicide mission, but Cheney’s ego has no time for risk or clogged arteries.
One subtly hilarious moment finds Cheney struggling to figure out what American Idol is while eating dinner with his family. When they remind him that it’s the show with the mean British guy verbally abusing aspiring singers, he immediately professes his love for the show. Bale’s performance forges perfect synergy with McKay’s interpretative storytelling. It’s the rare biopic performance that goes beyond mimicry and into a fleshed-out, larger-than-life character.
Bale is the centerpiece, but he’s surrounded by a formidable supporting cast. Adams’ portrayal of Lynne Cheney is nurturing but firm, the doling Lady Macbeth to her husband’s aspiring king. As Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Carell jettisons the former Secretary of Defense’s crusty belligerence to play him as a lumbering bureaucrat not far removed from his clueless Brick Tamland in the Anchorman films. Tyler Perry’s Colin Powell has a smaller role, but his position as voice of reason in the power-mad Bush White House is critical to the ensemble.
In his first major role since his Oscar-winning turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sam Rockwell brings necessary warmth to George W. Bush. More so than the Bush that Ferrell embodied during the 2000 election, Rockwell plays the 43rd President as desperate to rise above his black-sheep roots. While solemnly announcing the invasion of Iraq, his feet violently fidget under the Oval Office desk. Rockwell is disarming in conveying Bush’s good ol’ boy image, strengthening the omnipotence of Cheney as silent partner. Rockwell implies that the alliance with his “vice” is a Faustian tradeoff, a challenge to Bush’s critics to accept him, despite his misgivings, as a benevolent man.
The parallels to the chaotic, domineering news cycle of the Drumpf era (which is only sparingly alluded to) are inescapable. It’s an experiment that Oliver Stone failed to execute a decade ago with his lazy, inoffensive W arriving at the end of Bush’s presidency. Vice, however, is an entirely different beast, one that will define this era and endure for decades. What Goodfellas did for mob films and Raging Bull did for sports, Vice changes the game for political narratives.
“We did our fucking best,” an opening title card informs us. And did they ever.
As a side note, stick around for the ingenious mid-credits scene.