Film review, by Jason Day, of Vice (2018) the political satires about former US Vice President Dick Chaney, played by Christian Bale. Co-starring Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.
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Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) rose from being a College drop-out with a lack of ambition to being de facto leader of the United States after becoming George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) Vice President during his 2001-2009 administration. His career, egged on by his savvy wife Lynne (Amy Adams), encompasses true machiavellian zeal and survival.
Review, by Jason Day
As political satires go, this is as subtle as a kick in the caucuses.
It’s a cliche, but history does repeat itself.
Take the US constitution. I’m no expert but, considering a major war was fought between the US and Britain to wrest them from the yoke of British Monarchical rule, it’s funny how US power protocol has evolved along similar lines to the one it escaped from.
In Vice the characters jostle and intrigue for position and favour in a similar way to medieval European royal courts. There are references to ‘heirs apparent’ (Cheney is referred to as “6th in line” when he is made VP); his wife, apoplectic that Richard Nixon has been unseated from his throne, notes that this abdication should not happen at the Presidential level; conversations are whispered in corridors and thrones and throne rooms abound, leather-upholstered, reclining ones, but still thrones.
Finally, as if it were needed, an image of a King is flashed up on the screen as Cheney describes how the President’s power can, technically, go unchallenged like an autocratic monarch’s.
From the trailers, Vice had me tingling with anticipation, smart and sassy so it seemed. It’s up for a slew of international film awards, rather unaccountably I feel, given its lack of subtlety and savoir faire.
This tonal aberration could be because the characters we see are as classy as latrine cleaners in Savile Row suits. Apologies for that slur…to all of the latrine cleaners in history.
Right from the opening title it is spelt out to us that Cheney is an elusive fellow, but the filmmakers had done their “fucking best” to tell his story. This is an unwarranted profanity, used to desperately prove the writer is ‘down wit da kidz’.
But what kidz, exactly? The demographic for a movie like this must be over 35. I’m over 35 and whilst in no way speaking for all 35+ people on the planet and having no problems with swearing in films, but this f-bomb really grated as the audience it was intended for would more than likely have been in a other screen in the cinema.
That early, excited anticipation started to evaporate quicker than the steam on the coffee/brown grit and hot milk combo I had ordered.
The film tries too hard with symbolism and ‘visual meaning’. It’s as if the director, Adam McKay, clearly hot stuff behind the camera, a man who knows his cinematic onions, is so fresh out of film school he abides by every chapter and volume of ‘Move-making for Beginners’ for his first stint wielding the clapper-board.
The juxtaposition of images are so obvious as to be embarrassing and McKay sure covers a lot of ground with them. Cheney and his wife, in bed, suddenly transform into a Texan ‘Macbeth and his Lady’. Lending any Shakespearean pretensions is a double-edge sword – clever, literally aside or egregious naval gazing?
(FYI – this isn’t the only WS nod in this film. Wait for Bale’s closing soliloquy)*
Proceeding through the film, there are uncredited cameos from Naomi Watts as a Fox Newscaster whose narration details the establishment of that news outlet as a mouthpiece for rabid Cheney-isms.
Later, Alfred Molina – I really liked this scene – Alfred Molina plays an ingratiating waiter in a restaurant who details a menus that lists all of the horrors of the Bush/Cheney administration, with a gastronomic glee. Cheney orders the lot.
It could only go down hill from here in terms of rampantly uncontrolled semiology…and it does, for there has to be a crescendo to all of this. That’s what the final chapter of ‘Movie-making for Beginners’ is called, right?
Cheney in the film is painted as a traditional, conservative, devoted family man. He even gets over his younger daughter’s politically embarrassing lesbianism, accepting he will never be US President because his opponents would use that knowledge to destroy him through her.
Years later, as an even more heartless Washington swine, his elder daughter stands for office. He has the heart attack that has long shadowed him and receives a transplant. His old organ, scarred by bad diet and disgraceful politics, is removed, his empty chest cavity redolent of the vacuum-soul that has deserted his child.
The director cuts between these images and others that indicate familial upset, such as a tea-cup and saucer tower toppling over.
I would have been happy with just the fly-fishing metaphors (and, quick note here before I forget it, the final, closing credits sequence with some cleverly designed baits to represent Cheney’s just-transplanted heart, CCTV and other objects redolent of his life and politics).
During the central scene where Cheney angles for a Vice Presidency role that will see him wield all control with Bush as a puppet President, the lure is cast, Bush snaps at it and Dick expertly reels him in.
Christian Bale’s transformation into the portly, balding Cheney is remarkable.
It’s an extraordinarily detailed performance from Bale, a high class impersonation aided by fantastic make-up. Same goes for the technicians who worked on Adams, who ages gracefully, and Rockwell – if they don’t win the Oscar for their overtime here, ‘they wuz robbed’.
There is the faint pong of Best Actor Oscar grabbing for Bale – and he might well get it – but of all film actors who have delivered consistently interesting and challenging performances, Bale deserves it. More power to his elbow, I say.
Up there with him is Adams, as a seemingly possessed Mrs Cheney, the true power behind the crown.
Rockwell and Carell, who essay cool as menthol and slippery as the oil they covet turns as ‘Dubbya’ and a reptilian, foul-mouthed Donald Rumsfeld (probably, just by an inch, the best performance in the movie).
To close, I did like Vice. This is still a diverting and interesting movie with exceptional acting. My main gripe is that it makes the fundamental mistake of films that are clever – it believes in and is wrapped up in its own intelligence.
*Remember I mentioned earlier about that solo speech of Cheney’s. Vice had long since disappeared up its own arse before this moment, but at the end of movie it goes beyond the point of no return.
Speaking to camera and breaking the fourth wall, Cheney outlines why, despite being an unrepentant shit, we should not judge him. He did what was needed, politically, at the time.
McKay is getting Shakespearean again, this time nodding toward Richard III. Asides to the camera/audience are one thing, but he takes the biscuit here. This over-extended monologue comes across as an embarrassing, egregious, self-referential moment, whether you agree or not with the character.
The closing credits role and those images of the fly-baits pop up and I stayed in my seat, for once actually watching the credits and enjoying what I saw. Normality resumed.
Then, McKay returns to an earlier focus group scene and has them discussing Vice and whether it is too liberal or not.
If Vice started to disappear up its own arse during the opening credits, it had since come out and gone back in again by this point. A truly circular, colonic narrative there never was.
Cast & credits
Director: Adam McKay. 2hr 12mins/132mins. Annapurna Pictures/Gary Sanchez Productions/Plan B. Entertainment/The Third Floor.
Producers: Megan Ellison, Will Ferrell, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick, Brad Pitt.
Writer: Adam McKay.
Camera: Greig Fraser.
Music: Nicholas Britell.
Sets: Patrice Vermette.
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp.