Writer/director Adam McKay is undergoing one of the more fascinating evolutions in filmmaking right now. He's been the mastermind behind some of the most successful and iconic comedies of our time, such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, and yet he made a very deliberate pivot with 2015’s The Big Short. This was a heady, serious-minded film that chronicled the ins and outs of the 2008 financial crisis. It still retained his trademark humour though, adopting a self-reflexive, fourth-wall-breaking zaniness which made the thickets of economic speak in it a little easier to digest.
He's taken this style even further with Vice, which is a biopic of sorts about Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), George W. Bush's vice president from 2000 to 2008. McKay's involving style, which combines montage of archival footage and visual metaphor, may vary in its mileage for some. It's difficult to figure out exactly what we should feel about Cheney and his associates (among them Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell) who do unambiguously horrible and irresponsible things with the power they have. Even as the film indicts them, there's something discomfiting as a viewer about how it occasionally conflates itself with their attitudes, perhaps revelling in the abandon of their unchecked power. It recalls the slippery representation of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that made the audience feel culpable for enjoying the amoral actions of its characters.
McKay's playfulness is difficult not to embrace though. There's a fake ending credits sequence near the middle of the film – which paints a far more pleasant ending into the Cheney legacy – that's especially clever. This is before he gets a call from George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) who asks Cheney to be his VP. McKay illustrates this as one of many ‘delicate moments’ throughout the film, wherein a choice is made that is irrevocable. He likens it to the balance of teacups and saucers stacked on top of one another, the tower eventually crashing down as one too many moments become poorly handled.
Christian Bale, as he’s done previously (notably in The Machinist and The Fighter), put his body through drastic changes to inhabit the role of Cheney. He reportedly put on over 20 kilograms, and it makes the transformation even more impressive that he is so passive and un-showy in his performance. Amy Adams plays his strong-willed wife Lynne which is an arc that’s strikingly similar to that of the role she played beside Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. She seems to be carving out something of an impressive niche for herself as these independently-possessed women who take charge of their husbands’ lives. To round things out, Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell are curiously cast as Bush and Rumsfeld. It’s not necessarily indicative of how history reflects these men but it plays well into McKay’s eccentric presentation of events.
Early on in the film, Cheney asks Rumsfeld, with a genuine inquisitiveness, "what do we believe in?" and Rumsfeld laughs in his face. It's clear through this film’s trajectory that evil people weren't always necessarily evil or even had bad intentions. Cheney was, at least in McKay’s portrait, an impressionable, uncharismatic blank slate that became a product of his environment. And, as history attests, his effect was no less devastating for it.
Screening courtesy of Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.