The new seriocomedy Vice (*** out of four) is up for a half-dozen Golden Globes and will probably nab a handful of Academy Award nominations as well. What it doubtless won’t be snagging, however, is any sort of “Truth in Advertising” honors. The tagline for this biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney partly reads that it’s “The Untold True Story,” but it then spends over two hours regurgitating what was already largely known by any halfway sentient being (i.e. someone who spent the 2000s actually keeping up with news rather than just watching Survivor and Fear Factor).
Adam McKay, the director and writer of 2016’s The Big Short (for which he earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar alongside co-scripter Charles Randolph), borrows a similarly glib and freewheeling style for his latest movie, even if the approach doesn’t fit quite as snugly this time around. Vice breathlessly covers Cheney (played by Christian Bale) from his pre-political days through his time in the White House, paying particular attention to his marriage to Lynne (Amy Adams), his friendship with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), and his duties under (above?) President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Don’t expect a straightforward dramatization, as McKay frequently breaks the fourth wall via his chatty narrator (Jesse Plemons), employs a few stylized effects, and even hilariously ends the movie mid-movie (it must be seen, not explained).
The knee-jerk reaction would be to label Vice as a “preaching to the choir” movie, as those who despise Cheney would presumably be lining up to witness McKay’s beatdown while those who adore him would steer clear of what they would deem liberal propaganda. Yet even those who harbor no love for the former VP will likely want to stay away, since the familiarity of the subject matter coupled with memories of that largely post-9/11 period hardly serves as an irresistible holiday season draw.
Still, those who responded to the groovy wavelength of The Big Short (as I did) will find some value to this new film, and many of the comedic interludes work better than expected. The main reason to see this, however, is because of the mesmerizing turn by Bale, who buries himself in the role in much the same manner as Gary Oldman disappeared into Winston Churchill in last year’s Darkest Hour. If Vice’s biggest vice is its occasionally shallow treatment of complex matters, its greatest virtue is the fearless high-wire act performed by Bale.