By Jack Dignan
In Cinemas December 26th
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
When Adam McKay, the director behind such absurd comedies as ANCHORMAN and STEP BROTHERS, transitioned into drama, part of me wasn’t surprised. His comedies always felt like they were grounded in social commentaries, albeit absurd and subtle ones. But THE BIG SHORT, his 2015 Oscar winning film, is one I liked on first viewing and learned to love over time. Subsequent viewings really elevated my admiration for his enraged political drama, and after having seen VICE, it wouldn’t surprise me if subsequent viewings helped with my enjoyment of this too.
You’ve probably heard of George W. Bush, as portrayed here by Sam Rockwell. He’s the son of former U.S. president George H.W. Bush and later went on to become the president during the infamous 9/11 attacks. But a man not as many people seem to talk about was his VP at the time – a man named Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). While the Vice Presidency is a mostly symbolic job, Dick saw it as an opportunity for something more. VICE follows his rise to power and abuse of said power, slowly unraveling the untold and highly secretive true story of the most dangerous VP in presidential history.
If you were expecting a full-on Oscar bait drama, you’ll be sorely disappointed by VICE, because this is, for better and worse, a wholly unique Adam McKay film, filled to the brim with Big Dick (Cheney) Energy. McKay’s political acuteness carries over into this terrifying, but consistently entertaining, political reflection of the times we live in, which proves even more frightening given that this film was well into pre-production before a certain red-headed egomaniac rose to power. McKay, once again writing and directing, makes politics fun and easy to follow, but never pulls his punches when it comes to the hard-hitting drama.
His screenplay is a sharp, powerful depiction of Dick’s rise and subsequent abuse of power, fuelled with anger and political frustration, but it never fails to remind the audience that while McKay is a liberal, and his politics obviously come with an inherent bias, the film shouldn’t be held to alternate standards. It is, for the most part, as factually accurate as the filmmakers could muster. An opening title card and a closing mid-credit scene show everything you need to know about that, and both moments are some of the funniest VICE has to offer.
Sadly, VICE is a little too flashy for its own good. McKay and editor Hank Corwin (TREE OF LIFE) implement the same flashy style utilised in THE BIG SHORT, which sees an assortment of fast cutting imagery, moments of surrealism and celebrity cameos explaining the plot. A lot of it works, particularly one cameo that explains how the U.S. managed to legally get away with torture, but so much of it doesn’t. It feels strangely out of place in a story like this one, which is much easier to follow than the aforementioned BIG SHORT, a film that definitely warranted that style.
It’s not that I didn’t like the humour – this is a film so bleak and so vile that humour went a long way – or that I thought Jesse Plemons’ voice-over felt out of place (in fact, his story arc and later involvement in the plot might be my favourite surprise of this whole film), it’s just that the whole thing feels a little bit… much. You can maintain the humour and the absurdity of it all, but connect the dots through Plemons’ voice work instead. VICE leans a little too heavily into the flashy style that it begins to very quickly lose its desired effect. But, that being said, I guess it’s all worth it for an absolutely masterful visual gag that happens right before the introduction of Rockwell’s Bush.
In fact, once the film goes full Bush by introducing George W., and Dick finally rises to power, VICE becomes the film I wanted it to be. Things get a little darker, a little less flashy, and McKay takes no prisoners. A little more explanation into how Dick was able to maintain his unprecedented power for so many years would’ve been nice, but this is a film already full of exposition and fast facts that any extra information may have further overwhelmed me (I struggled to articulate my thoughts into words once this film had finished). But, for what it’s worth, Christian Bale acts the absolute hell out of this film, completely transforming his body and delivering a master class performance.
But he’s not the only one, either. Rockwell is fascinating in his fleeting screen time, fully embracing Bush as a disappointing son who wanted nothing more than to impress his father. Also included in the cast is a maniacal yet sensational Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and the always lovely Amy Adams as Dick’s wife Lynne Cheney. Now, I absolutely adore Amy Adams, and I think she deserves an Oscar more than anyone on the planet, but sadly, I don’t think this is her film, especially not with Regina King in the mix for IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Your time will come, Amy. I know it will. That being said, I’ve never been good at guessing Oscar wins this far out.
Even just talking through VICE, I’m already starting to like it more. I’ll stand by my rating for now, but if I frantically email Jason begging him to change it in the near future don’t be surprised. If you wanted a perfect summary of what this film is all about, one scene fairly early on sees Christian Bale asking Steve Carell a very serious political question. There’s a long pause, followed by Carell’s famous over exaggerated laughter. It’s kind of amazing.
3 1/2 Stars
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