It should come as no surprise that “Vice”—a politically charged movie coming out at a politically charged time—is proving divisive. What’s actually surprising is that the debates over “Vice” have mostly revolved around cinematic technique. It’s a nice change of pace, don’t you think?
“Vice” is the second movie in the career pivot of Adam McKay, the director behind comedy classics like “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers”. He first dabbled in political commentary with 2015’s “The Big Short”, which explained how Wall Street’s manufactured housing bubble led to the great recession. ‘Explained’ really is the operative term for the movie: “The Big Short” spends a lot of time simply describing the complex web of factors that culminated in the financial crisis, albeit in an entertaining way. For topics as multifaceted as the real estate bubble and American market system, a certain degree of explanation is warranted—but do we really need detailed explication when it comes to Dick Cheney?
Therein lies the issue with McKay’s latest: for the people most likely to see a movie about how evil Dick Cheney is, “Vice” isn’t going to offer a lot of new information. The man’s atrocities are well documented—there’s a reason his approval rating upon leaving office was a historically low 13%. Why bother with “Vice”, then? Well, other than the fact that it’s frequently funny, you should bother because you need to be angrier.
Like “The Big Short”, where “Vice” excels is in the recreation of history that most of us never experienced up close. McKay has done a deep dive into Cheney’s past, policy, and ideology, and for a two-hour movie, “Vice” is remarkably thorough. The events unfolding may be well known—though the movie does offer some nuggets of little-known, declassified information—but seeing these events come alive is in turns exhilarating and infuriating. You may know a lot about Dick Cheney, but the visual horror of watching that man destroy the lives of countless people worldwide is undeniably effective.
Christian Bale’s performance brings that nightmare to life. In a career full of transformative performances, Bale turns in one of his best here, embodying Cheney to a frightening degree of accuracy. Due to his spot-on vocal styling and physical ticks, Bale is sometimes indistinguishable from footage of the real Dick Cheney. His stoic yet menacing countenance is a revelation in biographical depiction. Amy Adams is also terrific as the sharp, malicious Lynne Cheney: she pulls off a character that is simultaneously relatable and wholly unlikable. It’s an impressive feat indeed.
“Vice” detractors do hold an inarguable view, though: the movie is messy. The first half of the movie could’ve used much longer in the editing room. Early scenes belabor their points repeatedly, as if McKay didn’t want to risk a single detail of Cheney’s career going over anyone’s heads. As McKay finds different ways to entertain us with the same points over and over, “Vice” fractures into a tonal grab bag of biographical comedy.
The movie coalesces nicely, though, when it reaches the single greatest crime of Cheney’s practical presidency: the Iraq War. When McKay anchors “Vice” there, the movie focuses like a laser beam. In a system that rewards money and power with more of both, Dick Cheneys will inevitably obliterate the world—let “Vice” show that to you in real time. Maybe then you’ll get angry enough to change the system.
Yes, “Vice” starts and ends three times each, but it’ll send a shiver down your spine that spurs your body to action. We know Dick Cheney isn’t sorry for the ill-founded Iraq War—but there’s nothing like seeing, with our own eyes, his actual response to learning that two-thirds of Americans didn’t think the Iraq War was worth fighting: “so?”