“Vice” is an unconventional, borderline satirical biopic chronicling former vice president Dick Cheney’s ascent from college dropout to a figure frequently deemed the most powerful vice president in U.S. history. Dynamic performances from Christian Bale as Cheney and Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, who wholeheartedly commit to their roles to inhabit these political elites, create a film that lies somewhere between a “House of Cards” drama and an “SNL” cold open; the excellent performances suggest the former, but the satirical, hurried script evokes the latter.
Writer-director Adam McKay, who also directed and co-wrote the 2015 Oscar-winning film “The Big Short,” is no stranger to complex, controversial topics in U.S. politics. Like the White House’s role in the 2007-08 financial crisis, a former vice president’s rise to power may not be the fertile ground to which Hollywood is eager to give a silver screen debut, but McKay has adequately proven that he likes the challenge. “Vice” is a huge undertaking, considering that the film defies traditional biopic beats and cliches and instead creates a rhythm of its own — one that slams on the accelerator right out of the gate with a fast-paced exploration of Cheney’s life.
Cheney is first introduced to the audience as an aimless, heavily drinking young adult. McKay juxtaposes the behavior of a 20-something Cheney who drives while obscenely intoxicated with his later composure on 9/11, as he was making some of the most consequential political choices for the United States and the world. Cutting together these disparate scenes creates a shocking opening that sets up the film: The first half attempts to show how Cheney rose from being an apparent nobody to working in the White House, while the second half focuses on him as the behind-the-scenes string-puller of former president George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), whom McKay portrays as somewhat of a presidential puppet.
Structurally, “Vice” is unlike most other movies about politicians. McKay takes a knife to the biopic format and welds a style of his own, incorporating a Shakespearean dialogue element, a number of fourth-wall breaks, and a mysterious, unnamed narrator. This style is mostly effective and entertaining but can sometimes feel like a gimmick. It can be frustrating, considering that the core substance of the film — a fairly recent historical setting with a biting script — has so much potential richness and should thus be the focus of the film.
These gimmicks often mask how surface-level the information provided actually is, making the film as a whole feel unfocused. Taking on multiple decades in Cheney’s life is no easy task, and the film would have been more effective if McKay had taken on less material in the timeline of Cheney’s life while expanding on more critical events. Historians often characterize Cheney as a notoriously secretive man who purposefully avoided the limelight, which perhaps adds to the challenge of creating an effective movie about him.
Through a sprawling story that chronicles the rise of Cheney, McKay attempts to pull back the curtain on Cheney as a person, but countless questions still remain. “Vice” briefly shows that Cheney strongly advocated for the invasion of Iraq, but never delves into his reasoning and hardly explores the resulting consequences of his actions. The film clearly demonstrates that Cheney desired unprecedented amounts of power and transformed the vice presidency to unforeseen levels in order to satiate that desire, but it does little to examine the drastic impact that Cheney’s political decisions had on civilians across the world.
Some of these choices in style and script get in the way of penetrating Cheney’s stoic facade, despite Bale’s remarkable characterization of Cheney. Unfortunately, the pace and structure of the film just never give Bale enough time to fully humanize Cheney, causing the character to always feel distant. Meanwhile, Adams gives one of her career-best performances as Lynne Cheney. Her character plays a significant part in the first half of the film as an impetus to her husband’s rise to power but fades to the background in the latter half, which is unfortunate considering Adams’ brilliant command of the screen.
What “Vice” ultimately makes clear is that politics is no fair game. McKay utilizes the story of Dick Cheney to argue that corruption and the hunger for power run rampant in politics and beyond. “Vice” adequately lays out the major events in Dick Cheney’s life, but it is more of an introductory launching pad to researching his political actions than a complete, holistic biopic. The film fails to crack through his political glass casing and provide moments that cause genuine pause and reflection over his humanity. Rather than provide a deep, nuanced portrait of one of the most controversial politicians in recent history, it simply skims the surface to give the audience a historically unsatisfying, albeit entertaining, film.
“Vice” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.