R Dir: Adam McKay | Twentieth Century Fox | 2h 12min
Plot: What’s it about?
Hollywood has a long and storied past of making films out of political figures. When I think of this genre, Oliver Stone is the first director that pops into my mind with his films of Nixon and W. and with his conspiracy film J.F.K. In 2018, Hollywood made a great film about the Gary Hart and Donna Rice scandal called The Front Runner and they made a very different political film with Adam McKay’s Vice. Like anybody reading this review, I lived through the George W. Bush presidency. I was a high schooler and then a college student. My business with my family began as Obama won the presidency. I am a bit of a political junkie and was very politically cognizant in those times so I was excited to see Adam McKay’s take on that era.
Adam McKay’s career was profoundly impacted by that era. At the time, McKay was head writer for Saturday Night Live and the biggest star on the show was Will Ferrell. Will Ferrell’s take on George W. Bush was something I watched weekly. Their working relationship forged during the Bush years led to all the later success they had together with Anchorman and Funny or Die – which is just to list a couple projects that they worked on together. McKay is an incredibly bright guy and he managed to adapt and direct Michael Lewis’s amazing book The Big Short a couple years ago. For that film, he won an Oscar in 2016 for best adapted screenplay. For a director and writer that was best known for his comedies, it was a huge accomplishment. It should come as no surprise that his next film would be a passion project. Like most successful directors, his big success had paved the way for him to make a film tackling basically anything he was interested in. In this case, McKay turned his attention to the most controversial Vice President of our time, Dick Cheney.
Vice begins with Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) getting the news of the September 11th attacks. Cheney springs into action while the President’s plane is still in the air. Cheney makes several strategic moves and uses his own power to make decisions while the President has not yet arrived. From this first scene, the film jumps back in time to a young Dick Cheney – drunk and pulled over by the police after a bar fight. The film follows the rise of Cheney from blue collar worker in Wyoming to one of the most powerful men (or the most powerful, depending on how you look at his term) in the nation. Working as a low level employee in the Nixon administration, Cheney garners the attention of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell.) Under his tutelage, Dick’s star begins to rise. With the support of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams,) Dick finds a way to wield more power than anybody could think possible in the position of Vice President, using legal tactics to change interpretations of his position.
This has, indisputably, an incredible performance by Christian Bale. Everything you have heard about his performance is true. He is simply remarkable as Dick Cheney. It is as if Bale was always meant to play him. The weight gain he endured along with the makeup he had to wear makes Bale look basically identical to Cheney in the last half of the film – it’s just unbelievably well done. I would argue that it is probably the best performance I have seen in the last year, and one of his finest performances in a long and acclaimed career. This is one aspect of the film that has evaded any type of criticism and elevates the film. I personally would have given the Oscar to Bale out of all the contenders last year. I also really enjoyed Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Amy Adams, and even Tyler Perry in their respective roles.
The film has some issues. The tone of the film (especially in the final moment in the credits, which should have been left on the editing room floor) feels condescending. The film has an anarchic spirit which I respect. I have been a fan of the films by Roger Moore since I saw Roger & Me as a kid and later saw both Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, but this film is mean-spirited in a way that those films never approached. What is stripped away from the characters in the film, is their humanity. Despite a great cast who portray the characters with gusto, the film manages to feel like an assemblage of caricatures. It could have driven home the same points with the same people, but done it in a way that showed the human beings that made these actions. This film has no tolerance of the people that it seeks to portray and therefore it never allows them to be likable or to have any real emotion – just a desire to wield power. The film uses Cheney’s numerous heart attacks to achieve a sort of comedic levity. This is effective and made me chuckle, but somewhere in there I could not help but feel that the filmmaker was wishing death on Cheney. That harshness comes through in the film and I think that it will repel viewers.
The film, despite its issues, is fascinating. There are numerous small actions taken by Cheney in the film that I knew nothing about. As somebody who loves (and loathes) politics, I was thankful to gain a lot more insight into Cheney’s background and some of his actions over his lifetime. There is no doubt that Cheney knew how to wield power and that comes across brilliantly. The screenplay gathers so many facts that I had not heard that I was thankful I had seen the film by the end of it. There is no denying that McKay did a tremendous amount of research for the film.
At the end of the day, this film is going to aggravate as many people as it is going to amuse. All you can do is watch it and decide where you land on it.
Video: How’s it look?
Vice comes to Blu-ray shown in a 2.40:1 AVC HD transfer that certainly fits the bill. I have to chuckle as some films are so laden with CGI and other special effects, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see what good old-fashioned makeup can do in the movies. Who’d have imagined? Bale’s physical transformation for the part of Dick Cheney is, of course, the focal point of the film. But as we look at some of the other characters in the film, it’s a testament to both the transfer and the makeup artists that give this film its authenticity. We’re treated to a myriad of scenes, ranging from the cold outdoors to the somewhat stale and generic “White House”, but through it all I found not a lot of room for complaint. Detail is tack sharp, it’s nearly impossible to see any of the prosthetics used in the film. Seeing an overweight Christian Bale might not be what the doctor ordered, but this image shows everything in its full glory. It’s no wonder this film won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Makeup.
Audio: How’s it sound?
We’re treated to a fairly impressive DTS HD Master Audio track and it plays the part well. As one might imagine the film is mainly dialogue-driven, though we do get some instances in which the sonics are engaged. The film has a weird vibe to it as well, or maybe that was just me. I felt that this, like some off McKay’s other films, had some moments of an upbeat musical quality to it. And Nicholas Britell’s score does tend to liven up the movie. At any rate, vocals sound true to form, they resonate as the onslaught of characters each regale us with their vocal inflections. Surrounds are used sparingly, yet effectively and give the movie a nice bit of much-needed ambiance. This isn’t one that you’ll gravitate to for its audio quality, but it delivers.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Gaming the System: The Making of Vice – McKay and others discuss their various roles in the film, most importantly how Christian Bale decided how (and why) to approach his role as the titular character. It’s short, but a fascinating look at what went into the film.
- The Music of Power – Yes, they cut a musical number out of the film. When Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) is showing Cheney the ropes. McKay explains what it is and why it was ultimately removed.
- Gallery – As with all Fox titles, these can be played manually or automatically advanced. Stills from the film are included.
- Deleted Scenes – Given the film’s somewhat bloated running time, only three were included and wisely removed from the final product. Still, it’s good to have them included here.
- High School
The Bottom Line
Vice is a fascinating film. It’s as condescending as it is interesting. Christian Bale is phenomenal in the movie and makes it worth watching. I adjusted my rating to the film because I think that people are just as likely to be repelled as enthralled. Even the people that will enjoy the film are going to find the filmmaker’s hatred of Cheney a little off-putting. For myself, I am glad that I watched the film, but I feel reticence to recommend it.