Review: Vice

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60%
60
Frustrating

Make your own mind up on this one. There's never a dull moment in Vice, yet the performances of Bale and Adams promise so much more.

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Somewhere buried within Vice lies the tale of how Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States serving under George W. Bush, may very well have made millions from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through crony capitalism. Elsewhere, the onset of the sensationalist right-wing info-machine sees Cheney, during his early years in Washington, rubbing shoulders with Roger Ailes, eventual Chairman and CEO of Fox News. Further still, climate change and the energy debate pop up on the agenda, with Cheney voting in support of the Reagan administration on a series of pro-business policies favouring the fossil fuel industries. There are a multitude of mini-movies hidden in this sprawling biopic. It’s a shame that Vice didn’t just stick with one. Ultimately, it could be summarised as the story of a man who became so powerful that, on the occasion that Cheney accidentally shot attorney Harry Whittington in the face on a hunting trip in 2006, it was Whittington who publicly apologised for the incident. During his lengthy time in politics, Cheney weaved his way through the fabric of American society, his actions behind the scenes far-reaching and his footprint still firmly marked on the Middle East. Writer and director Adam McKay tries to capture this magnitude with a busy screenplay, though in the process appears to bite off far more than he can chew.

McKay deploys specific techniques for his previous film The Big Short, a fragmentary collage-type style that proved successful in helping to unravel the many complexities and perspectives of the global financial crisis. Vice doubles down on that formula, moving along at a frantic pace with choppy editing and numerous cutaways, unfortunately with a sense of diminishing returns. Narration by the fictional Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a veteran of the War on Terror who ends up playing a vital role in Cheney’s later life, is part of a framing device that is far too intrusive on the central action. McKay very rarely allows for a beat or a moment to settle, so points that are meant to feel crucial struggle to hit home with any kind of lasting impact. The film jumps forwards and backwards in time repeatedly, opening with the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Cheney taking command in the President’s Emergency Operations Center, before going back all the way to the 1960s to try and explain how this man possibly attained such a formidable position of power. McKay’s flourishes encroach on the powerhouse performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams, their assertive portrayals of Dick and Lynne Cheney cut up into vignettes, generally displaced by showy technique, so that they feel less fully realised than they should. A structural mess, Vice could have been improved drastically if it favoured a more linear approach that let these two extraordinary performers take centre stage.

Though it may be overwrought, the film’s style is admittedly inventive and makes for a work that never fails to entertain. The sharpest and funniest bits of satire rely on Vice‘s indulgence in its own extravagant form. It could be seen as a little on the nose, but intercutting Cheney’s luring of Bush Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to his desired terms with snippets of reeling in a fish is a thrilling sequence that emphasises the cunning of the former and the naivety of the latter. Another such scene, depicting how the VP gained access in all sectors of political influence following George W.’s election as though it were a game of Risk, is a joy in its playfulness. This sense of fun is a trait that extends to many other brief segments of Vice, presenting a dilemma over whether the film in its unevenness wishes to be treated as comedy or tragedy. It’s certainly unable to deliver on a precise tone to meld the genres anywhere near as smoothly as The Big Short did.

Vice acknowledges in its opening text how notoriously secretive a figure Cheney remains, which may go some way towards explaining McKay’s approach here – essentially throwing everything he has been able to gather at the screen, trying to see what sticks. It seems the film doesn’t really know what it wants to say about its central subject, instead thinking that bombarding the audience with talking points is an apt substitute for any enduring ideas or messages. Bale’s transformation and gravitas is worth seeing; it’s a shame that the film around him never convinces as a consummate whole. Vice loses a few more points for a silly and laughably patronising mid-credits scene, perhaps best reflecting the filmmaker’s uncertainty on where he stands with Dick Cheney but, more worryingly, showing a disdain for ordinary people that helps no one.

Vice (2018), directed by Adam McKay, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One UK Ltd, certificate 15.

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Film Editor 2019/20. Enjoys classic Simpsons, R.E.M. and the MCU.

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