Charting the career of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from unassuming Washington bureaucrat to the most powerful Vice President of the United States, 'Vice' examines his rise to power and how he held on to it.
For Adam McKay, a comedy director who's most notable work often involves creeping behind the curtain of old boy's clubs like news broadcasting or stock-car racing, skewering the backroom dealings of the economic collapse of 2007 seemed like a leap. Yet, when you step back and look at 'The Big Short', it's the same thing. It's an old boy's club writ large, with jock estate agents partying with strippers and Abercrombie & Fitch-esque dudes trying to make a quick buck on the demise of the American middle class. It's the same with 'Vice', opening with a youthfully pudgy Christian Bale getting into a barfight and working menial labour before his shrew of a wife, Amy Adams, tells him that she'll leave him if he doesn't wise up and do better.
If that's all you saw of 'Vice', you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dick Cheney rose to the highest levels of government and shaped the course of destiny for America simply to please his wife. Instead, 'Vice' brutally eschews any kind of romanticism about Dick Cheney and pulls back the skin to reveal what he really is - a megalomaniac who not only desires control and power over everything but so forcefully uses it to meet his own ends. There's a moment in 'Vice' when Cheney, only beginning his career in Washington, asks Donald Rumsfeld - played by Steve Carrell - what they stand for. Rumsfeld laughs heartily in his face, before slamming his office door on it. From there on, Cheney acclimates to the thinking and understands that it's not about idealism, it's not about policy and it's not about serving people. It's about dominance.
Christian Bale's performance is finely tuned and carries with it a deep understanding of what made Cheney so fearsome and so reviled. There isn't a shred of likeability to his character, he doesn't care if he's liked and seems permanently irritable. Even when you think there's a line he won't cross to keep power, he does so seemingly without any kind of hesitation. Adams plays off this with aplomb, one scene deliberately driving home the fact that she's probably as bad as he is. Steve Carrell, as well, captures the innate unlikeableness of Donald Rumsfeld with his sneering laugh and pathetic mannerisms. Sam Rockwell, however, plays a truly supporting role in this as George W. Bush. He really does play second fiddle to Cheney, and even though they only share a scene or two together, it's done so pointedly that you can't help but imagine if it was really like that.
If there's a criticism for 'Vice', it's just that - accuracy and historicity. To be fair to McKay's script and direction, it acknowledges this fact head-on and makes it clear that Cheney was so assiduous in how he deflected attention that very little can be verified about his life behind closed doors. There's also no pretension as to objectivity, as 'Vice' clearly casts Cheney as a despot and even writes a scene replete with Shakesperean language to illustrate its point. If you can get on board with McKay's freewheeling style of direction - pausing the movie mid-way for a credits joke, the narration, the freeze-frame jokes and so on - it's really a compelling and entertaining examination of an appalling human being. It's not subtle or trying to humanise him, and the final scene puts the onus squarely on the viewer as to how you perceive both him and what you've just seen.