Vice (once titled Backseat) was one of my most anticipated movies of 2018. Along with the cast being talented with the likes of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell involved and it being about Dick Cheney, it would be Adam McKay (who directed The Big Short) who would be taking on this movie about the notorious Vice President of George W. Bush. Despite hearing some early positive buzz, when the full reception of the movie came out, it was pretty divisive, one of the most divisive films of 2018 in fact. I happen to be in the camp of people who liked Vice, even though I get why it didn’t quite work for some people.
Adam McKay wrote the script for Vice and having watched The Big Short somewhat recently you can feel it. Now the movie is based on a true story and title cards at the beginning it makes pretty clear at the beginning that Dick Cheney is a very secretive person and that they tried their hardest to get their information about what happened. I heard some criticisms of the movie being that it’s very biased and intending to be very scathing towards Dick Cheney, I disagree. I knew going in that Adam McKay is a very political person, and he’s already made his opinions on Bush, Cheney and the entire Bush Administration pretty clear. With all that said, McKay seemed to restrain himself from just making the whole film just a hit piece on Cheney, while it is very opinionated and clearly against him, it also attempting to give some humanity to the controversial politician. At the same time though, it’s not trying to glorify him. Naturally as this movie is about politics, it’s going to divide some people with things that are said and how things are portrayed, it’s a given really. As a movie I was pretty interested in what was going on. It really covers Dick Cheney’s life in politics, so this includes his early stage work in the White House, before he’s Bush’s running mate in the 2000s. I think I should point out that despite the title, it’s really the second half of the movie that covers Dick as Vice President, and that’s where it picks up. I get that given this is a biopic about him they needed the first half to show where he got his experience, but I wouldn’t have minded if they picked up the pace a bit. While I wouldn’t say I was bored in the first half, there were portions where I was kind of wanting it to just jump to the Bush/Cheney stuff pretty quickly. The movie is 2 hours and 10 minutes long and while I don’t necessarily think that it should’ve been shorter, I wish that it got to the Bush Administration sooner. The second half is way more compelling and interesting, and that’s where the more hard hitting facts come into play. In terms of criticisms with what was portrayed and what was not, I do feel like they don’t spend enough time with the 9/11 bit. It’s definitely there, but it actually doesn’t stay on that extremely crucial and historical moment for long.
Vice had one of the best trailers of the year, however it implied that it would have a lot more comedy than there ended up being. Some of the humour can be absolutely absurd and it won’t work for some people, it did for me though. The comedy is here to make processing some of these events and facts easier. For one, this movie is pretty political based, and people generally are understandably bored by politics. I will say that I understood more here than with The Big Short, but that might just be because I can follow politics better than the economy. The other reason for the humour is that Vice is a lot darker than you think it would be. From the trailer you would think that it would just be rundown of what Dick Cheney did and that it’ll list off what happened as a result. While it is that and more, it also shows the consequences of his decisions, and I mean like they recreate events. For example there might be a scene where Cheney makes some decisions which might result on people being bombed and it would show glimpses of said bombing happening (the same could be torture, war, etc). Despite the comedy, it’s used more sparingly than you may think. The Big Short had quite a bit of comedy while highlighting a lot of tragic aspects, with Vice there’s much less comedy. I feel like using the comedy makes the harder and more troubling moments hit even harder, because you’re not bracing yourself for how bad things are going to go next. If you feel frustrated, angry or disturbed learning about all of these facts, Vice is kind of doing its job. As for more about how this is all told, I’ll get to that when I talk about the direction of the movie. Side note but Vice also a mid credits scene… a mid credits scene which is unnecessary and didn’t quite work. I get the intention behind that scene but it felt very heavy handed (even for Adam McKay) and was a little silly and not in the right way. The reference to a certain popular action franchise in the last line of the entire movie didn’t help things much either. So no, you aren’t missing much if you leave after the credits start to roll.
Vice has a fantastic cast that all work together great. Christian Bale here gives one of his best performances in his entire career, and considering his acting talent and his endless track record of fantastic performances, that’s saying a lot. Not only does he physically transform into Dick Cheney with yet another large weight gain (he really should stop doing that soon), he just embodies him completely. Even though I haven’t seen a ton of video footage of the real Cheney, the way Bale acts seems exactly like him. It would be easy for any actor to over rely on the weight gain, makeup and transformation, however he uses it to enhance his performance. The way he speaks (out of the corner of his mouth and with a very low voice), moves, all of that felt so much like Cheney. It’s not a showy performance at all, appropriately given the person he’s portraying, it’s a very quiet performance, you can tell even when he’s not saying a single word that he’s thinking and scheming about something. I know that it’s been said many times in the past with plenty of performances, but I forgot so many times that it was Bale playing Dick Cheney (I’m referring more so in the latter parts of the movie, he’s pretty recognisable earlier on). Now I have seen some people complain that the movie doesn’t go into a deep dive into Cheney as a person or necessarily explain him, given that Vice is a biopic about him. Once again I’ll refer to the beginning of the movie how it mentions that Dick Cheney is incredibly secretive, so really there was only so much that one could actually find out about him. Really when it comes to showing what kind of a person he is, you have to look at his actions in the movie and the ways he does them, those things sort of painted a picture of what Cheney really was. One of the best performances of 2018 for sure.
Amy Adams plays Lynne Cheney, the wife of Dick, who actually played a big part in his success. She was actually involved a lot more in the movie than I thought she would be. Adams as usual brings her A-game to this role, I don’t know if I’d consider this to be necessarily one of her all time best performances but it a good performance nonetheless. Steve Carell is charismatic and entertaining as Donald Rumsfeld, who acted as Secretary of Defence for both Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, and is a delight when he’s on screen. Then there’s Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush who is hilarious when he’s on screen. The portrayal basically leans in more that Bush was really incompetent and was manipulated by Cheney and others. I just wished that we got more of Rockwell, he really shows up in the second half of the movie and doesn’t as much screen time as I would’ve liked. Other actors like Tyler Perry who plays Colin Powell are also great in their roles. Something that also should be discussed is Jesse Plemons is as the narrator of the movie, who you see in person quite a lot throughout the movie, talking to the camera. Plemons is an overlooked actor worthy of a lot more recognition and he does a really good job here, really keeping your attention whenever he’s present. There’s a big mystery to his character in his relation to Dick Cheney, and I can certainly say that the reveal was rather unexpected. I’m not exactly sure how I felt about it though. The reveal felt rather pointless, it doesn’t exactly tell us anything new, it’s just surprising that’s all. It might’ve just been better to have Plemons as a random guy narrating everything that happened than actually giving him a role in the story.
Adam McKay’s direction of The Big Short was pretty unique and actually worked quite well to tell the story and explain everything rather well (even though there was a bunch of things that I still don’t understand even after watching it twice). However, he takes his odd brand of filmmaking to the next level with Vice. This might be the most unorthodoxly directed political movie and biopic I’ve seen, especially with regard to the editing. Along with the political baggage, this direction is what will really polarize and divide a lot of people. As for how the story is told and all that, I decided to hold off talking about it till I was talking about the direction, because the two aspects kind of interlink with each other. As previously mentioned the film is narrated, and there is a ton of narration, and there is a ton of explaining everything to the audience. As much as I prefer that they would show rather than tell, it’s pretty hard getting across so much information and having the general audience understanding it. So I don’t see it as McKay condescending and treating people like they’re children, it can be very difficult for most people to understand politics or really be that interested in it, its rather mundane. McKay does some weird choices of portraying scenes, some of it being for humour. For example there’s a scene where both Dick and Lynne have a scene where every line they had was like Shakespearian (this instance it was more done for humour). Things like this at least keeps things interesting as you’re wondering what absurd thing McKay will somehow add in next (Galactus somehow makes an appearance). In that sense, quite a lot of the movie is satirical, and the whole movie seems to bounce between being a straight up serious political biopic with some comedic bits, to a full on absurdist satire. This can be very jarring but it worked for me, even though it can be quite messy at times. As the film covers 3-4 decades, there is a lot of makeup used and it worked really well, mostly being used on Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carell.
Making a movie about Dick Cheney is not easy but Adam McKay really pulled it off, even though it won’t work for everyone. The performances are nothing short of fantastic, and the way that the story was told was very effective, at times funny, but also very hard hitting. Vice is an unorthodox film for sure but I think it’s better with this direction than without it. I do think that Vice is worth watching at least for the performances, though I’m not quite sure how you’ll feel about the rest of the film.