American politics has a sense of drama and scope, and a cast of extraordinary characters, which make it very appealing to dramatisation. It's almost Shakespearean in scale, figures with enormous power making significant decisions that affect the course of history, often driven by or destroyed by its own hubris, and as the wheel of history has continued to turn, more stories and more fascinating figures have emerged. Following on from his Oscar-winning ‘The Big Short’, writer and director Adam McKay is continuing this cinematic exploration of U.S. politics with ‘Vice’, his portrait on George W. Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, one of the most elusive and controversial political figures of the last 50 years. After showing such promise and imagination in his last film, McKay’s ambition may have gotten the better of him here.
The film follows Cheney (Christian Bale, ‘The Dark Knight' Trilogy) and his rise from university dropout to the puppeteer of the President of the United States, through his relationship with mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, ‘Foxcatcher’) and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, ‘Arrival’). Once he was in the White House as Vice President after the 2000 election of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’), he was able to manipulate the inexperienced Bush, attain unquestionable power and shape America’s response after 9/11 towards unspeakable brutality.
I was really impressed by McKay’s sudden shift to serious subject matter with ‘The Big Short’, a film I found to be irreverent, passionate, angry and deeply moving. I’m also a huge fan of film and television about the machinations of American politics, so needless to say I was pretty excited for ‘Vice’. Unfortunately, the ambition of the film doesn’t live up to expectation, resulting in a film that feels overcooked and unclear. Much of what feels lacking about ‘Vice’ is that McKay so aggressively references in style and structure the history films of Oliver Stone, such as his masterpiece ‘JFK’ (1991) and especially his sprawling epic ‘Nixon’ (1995). The problem is McKay is not Oliver Stone, and while Stone was barely able to contain his frantic cacophony of image, sound and contrast into something thrilling, McKay simply doesn’t have the skillset to achieve it. In his hands, it’s just a lot of loud noise. For anyone familiar with Stone’s films, ‘Vice’ would seem derivative. More importantly, for anyone not, the film has a confused, obnoxious quality, like it’s trying to show how clever it is without offering any proof. McKay is trying to deliver a grand history play, but also throw in the irreverence and fourth wall meta-theatrics that won him attention in ‘The Big Short’, but neither of these forms work against one another, creating a narrative and tonal dissonance that often really grates. ‘Short’ was an unexpected slide from comedy of errors towards catastrophe, but ‘Vice’ can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama, adding to the building lack of tonal clarity. McKay is simply trying to do too much with this film, reaching in all directions for something that, yet no matter how far he stretches, is still out of his reach. What he seems to be attempting is wonderfully ambitious, but he’s just not a good enough filmmaker to achieve them.
It leaves you with a confused portrait of Cheney and those around him. Cheney is notoriously secretive (something the film starts off by pointing out in that pathetic straight male way of apologising for its inadequacies in the hopes it will make you like it more), and the film does try some creative ways to get around it. The problem is, it also can’t seem to decide how we should feel about him. That’s not to say he should be hero or villain, but it’s not even clear that the film wants us to find him complicated, and the coda at the end just confuses it more. McKay had a clear focus for his anger in ‘Short’, but moments of anger here get sidetracked, either by the film’s confused style or by left-of-field narrative choices. It doesn’t help that he fills it with so many obvious and incongruous visual metaphors, to the point where you feel like you’re watching an essay on Cheney rather than a portrait. The post-9/11 section is the one moment where the film finds its feet, and this is all to do with it suddenly having an objective to follow, offering us a brief tantalising glimpse at the film this could have been.
The film has a confused, obnoxious quality, like it’s trying to show how clever it is without offering any proof.
In terms of performance, there’s very little to distinguish the film either. Bale is perfectly fine as Cheney, and yes, he does look and sound like him, but (regardless of what the Oscars think) simply imitating is not a performance, and McKay’s screenplay and subsequent direction offers so little, keeping everything about the man buried under his dead eyes. A great comic performance threatens under the surface of Bale’s work, and you keep waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, but it never comes, making the performance unsatisfying. Amy Adams is watchable as Lynne (I mean, it is Amy Adams), but she might as well be Joan Allen in ‘Nixon’ or Elizabeth Banks in ‘W’ – she’s just another white lady with grey hair and an accent married to and serving as Lady Macbeth to a man in power, and thus undeserving of significant screen time or a character arc. There’s also nothing wrong with Carrell or Rockwell (though Bush gets off pretty easily), and Tyler Perry pops up at one point as Colin Powell, but again, there’s so little room for a distinctive performance here amongst the noise of the form.
There are stories that Adam McKay decided to shift the tone of the film in post-production away from comedy towards drama, and I tend to believe that. ‘Vice’ is a film where all the pieces don’t fit together right, as if it’s a puzzle put together from two sets that are similar but not exactly the same. It tries to get by on its shocking revelations (and there are a few), but in the end, it’s more a Wikipedia article than a sweeping chronicle. I walked away confused as to why it existed in the first place, what I was supposed to take away from it, other than Dick Cheney was a quiet man with enormous power. If anything, the impression I left with was that ‘Vice’ exists because it can, not because it must, and that simply isn’t good enough. It tries so hard to show how clever and "woke" it is, but all that effort sound more like obnoxious mansplaining. In an awards season more full of disappointments than surprises, the failure of ‘Vice’ is just another to add to the pile.