While difficult, it is imperative to evaluate Adam McKay’s second venture into “serious filmmaking” without recalling his previous success (The Big Short)—Vice is quite different from The Big Short. Although they both have the same somewhat irresponsible and light-hearted tone, it is important to remember The Big Short is about an event, while Vice is about a person. More specifically, Vice is about how one person, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), was able to play the infamous game of politics so well that he changed the fabric of the government.
At face value, Vice is a movie about the life of Dick Cheney. It follows him and his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), from their humble beginnings to the present day. It shows the audience how they were able to work themselves out from where they started and get to where they are. Vice explores what their journey entailed. Although focused on the couple’s progression, the movie carries a biting political narrative. At its core, Vice is an exploration of government and “the establishment” through the lens of someone who was was able to understand and manipulate it. It’s the untold story of the most powerful Vice President of the United States.
In the current political climate, it would be easy to dismiss a movie like Vice—“Oh it’s just another piece of liberal propaganda that vilifies conservatives and shows how the world was ruined by conservatives.” To a certain degree that is true. The movie has a liberal bias, mostly thanks to the writing and directing by McKay. But it is the performances, especially the ones from Bale and Adams, that elevate the material into a character study of ambitious people who took what life had given them and made the most out of it.
That’s not to say that the writing and directing is bad—the movie is full of quick editing, sharp dialogue and great cinematography. McKay has complete control of his craft and is able to connect the different story points intelligently, even when his introduction of them was a little messy. Here he crafts an interesting tale of American history that is definitely worth watching, if only for the conversations that it will provoke. In an interview with The New York Times, McKay said that his purpose for making this film is to better understand how the country got to where it is now, and it certainly shines light on the current disgruntled state of American politics.
Guided by the philosophy that “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry,” Vice is surprisingly successful at incorporating comedic elements. Although at times insensitive, the filmmakers are trying to explain this story this way in hopes of attracting a larger audience who do not want to sit through a two hour grief-train of how many lives Cheney negatively affected. So instead they get an edgier product, which, honestly, is more effective.
The performances really shine through and make this film bring the story of Cheney’s meddling to life. The supporting cast is stellar across the board, with people like Steve Carell, who plays Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell, who plays President George H. W. Bush, turning in fantastic work.
In the hands of lesser actors, the two main characters—Cheney and his wife—would have been portrayed as monsters. Their humanity would have been lost in the movie’s agenda, and the audience would have seen caricatures of who these people really are. Instead, both Bale and Adams give performances that frame their characters as real people who understood the situation they were in and worked shrewdly and unapologetically to make the absolute most of it. Through Bale and Adams’ performances, Dick and Lynne are ambitious people who searched for opportunities to become powerful and successful. They are never portrayed as one-dimensional villains. Rather, they are unapologetic utilitarians who understood the game of politics better than anyone else and excelled at it, no matter the cost.
Did this philosophy hurt and affect people? Yes. But in their eyes, this was the price they were willing to pay for success. Most importantly, Bale and Adams don’t argue that these are morally redeemable characters. They aren’t telling the audience to root for them. They are simply portraying the truth as honestly as they can and letting the audience decide whether or not the ends justify the means.
It is impossible to craft an accurate story that depicts history perfectly, especially in a movie studio that breeds drama for entertainment value. Vice is not simply a documentary that sets out to give a historical account of real events—actually, it occasionally goes as far as making fun of itself for pretending to know everything. Vice is about exploring the almost Machiavellian motivations behind actions that left an indelible mark on one of the world’s greatest political powers.
Featured Image by Annapurna Productions