The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
Director Adam McKay might be best known for his more straight-up comedies like Anchorman and Anchorman 2, but I have never been a huge fan of those films. McKay’s last two films have taken what I would consider a pretty drastic change in scope: 2015’s The Big Short and this year’s Vice. They both have a fair amount of laughs and there is a comedic spin to most elements of the story (more so with The Big Short compared to Vice), but the films cover more dramatic periods in American history.
The Big Short was a knockout. McKay brought a unique style to the film mixing in dramatic scenes with brief asides breaking the fourth wall to discuss more fact-based, dense material that would be hard to get across in normal dialogue. It really fit the source material — the 2007 housing crisis — well, educating alongside entertaining. Vice is quite similar, but focusing on Dick Cheney’s life and rise to political power. From the little I can picture and remember Dick Cheney, Christian Bale delivers a solid performance, side-mouth gasps of breath mid-sentence and all. While Cheney is the main focus, Vice does have quite an ensemble cast, all of whom deliver decent performances, none quite match Bale’s turn as the Vice President. I am actually quite amazed Sam Rockwell netted a nomination for Best Supporting Actor as George W. Bush — again, not because it was a bad performance, it just is not what I would say is a memorable performance.
McKay again brings the style he introduced in The Big Short to Vice, mixing “traditional” drama/biopic filmmaking along with opinionated, jaunty asides from the narrator Kurt, played with brilliant deadpan by Jesse Plemons. This does make the movie more interesting and gives it more than just a straight history of Cheney’s life, but it fails in a key way. With Kurt providing the narration for the entire movie, it makes the history seem more monotone an uneventful than just a straight biopic, or à la The Big Short where a handful of different people jumped in at different points to draw attention to specific moments. In The Big Short this helps to emphasize, “this is a big moment… let’s explain a credit-default swap and what it means”. Perhaps this stems from Jesse Plemons deadpan delivery, but I think the problem is more at the story level. We get that several of these moments are important for Cheney, and as McKay argues, important in the history of the United States. But by the end, they all seem to blur together and not stand out from each other.
Still an entertaining film, and McKay does a fantastic job conveying a wealth of information spanning a broad stretch of time in a fairly succinct and comprehensible way. The acting is great, particularly Christian Bale’s performance, and the commentary is both scathing and gentle at the same time. Best displayed in the after credits scene with a return to the focus group between “normal Americans” sharing their thoughts and opinions. A solid Best Picture nominee, but I do not think the eventual winner.
4 out of 5