The unpredictable trajectory of Adam McKay's career continues, as the former helmer of silly Will Ferrell comedies, after pivoting with the startlingly relevant The Big Short in 2015, now doubles down on the politics with Vice, a no-holds-barred takedown of Dick Cheney.
If The Big Short occasionally broke the fourth wall in order to educate the audience about the complicated machinations behind the 2008 financial crisis, Vice goes full-on Bertolt Brecht with its various distancing devices. In fact the film takes a huge cue from Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a 1941 play written as a very thinly veiled satire of Hitler's ascension.
McKay isn't going so far as to literally compare Cheney to Hitler, but like Brecht, he employs agitprop techniques to prevent audiences from connecting with the former Vice President, and to inform and outrage. This is not a biopic of Cheney. You are not meant to understand the man, but to regard him as a symbol of neocon policies born from a lust for power, indifferent to human suffering, and finally disastrous.
Much of Vice simply reinforces the left's long-held suspicions about Cheney: that he held more power, as Vice President, than George W. Bush ever did as President; that he, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their cronies planned the invasion of Iraq seemingly moments after Bush was declared President; that Cheney pulled strings to get his former company Halliburton the lion's share of contracts during the Iraq War.
But what I found most interesting about Vice were the little details that went unnoticed by so many, including myself: how right-wing think tanks used focus group testing to twist the American people's perceptions of everything from the estate tax to global warming; how one young attorney, John Yoo, devised the so-called "torture memos" which allowed the Bush Administration to lead enhanced interrogation campaigns with impunity; how conservatives pushed the FCC to abandon 1949's Fairness Doctrine, opening the door to biased media sources such as Fox News.
Much has been said about Christian Bale's uncanny transformation into the bald, portly, sneering, aged Cheney. The makeup effects alone deserve an Oscar. Bale's performance is similarly flawless, though it's clear that he and McKay agreed not to render Cheney likable. In fact, Cheney-the-character's only trace of humanity, that of his love for his lesbian daughter Mary in the face of Republican homophobia, is merely a setup for a third act payoff that, if you remember the 2014 midterm elections, you will see coming. If anything, Cheney's ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams) comes across even worse. She's such a Lady Macbeth type that, in a somewhat ill-advised scene, McKay literally has Bale and Adams recite lines written in Shakespearian Old English. (It's not the film's only absurdist scene.)
Vice isn't a grand slam; at times, McKay's dialogue is too on the nose. (Cheney to Rumsfeld: "What do we believe in?" Rumsfeld to Cheney: "Hahahahaha!") But I was captivated throughout the proceedings, and the performances by Bale, Adams, Steve Carell (as Rumsfeld) and Sam Rockwell as the out-of-his-depth Bush are all great. It's a worthy film to watch at a time where many liberals' knee-jerk response to Donald Trump is that he's the scariest President in American history. Two and a half hours of Vice will convince you that that dishonor really belongs to Dick Cheney.