In my last review, I briefly mentioned ‘transformative’ acting roles in relation to the film I was reviewing and the actors involved, and if there is a modern master of this art, Christian Bale is certainly a front-runner.
From losing an incredible amount of weight for The Machinist to bulking up once more for his three appearances as Batman in the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, Christian Bale is transforming himself once again in his latest role, as former US Vice-President Dick Cheney.
As a Brit, my foreknowledge of American politics is rather ropy. I know of Cheney by name, mainly from his name being mentioned by various comedians as some curmudgeon who values human life slightly less than he values his third doughnut of the day, that is to say, not much. So this film will serve as a crash course in Cheney, but is it a worthwhile one?
Charting the rise of Dick Cheney from college drop-out to the most powerful Vice-President in history, we see the rich tapestry of American politics through the eyes of Cheney himself, and the many people he comes across.
If, like me, you aren’t all that knowledgeable of American politics, this film serves as a crash course in the past 50 years, charting the swings in power and all major points of contention along the way. From Nixon all the way through to Obama, Cheney was there and this film shows that.
This film is currently riding a wave of success n the back of the release of the Oscars nominations, where it has amassed eight nominations across many categories, including the much sought-after Best Picture award, in the grand scheme of Best Picture nominees, it stands out as a bit more experimental than most, utilising jump-cuts through various issues and flirting with non-linearity, the director’s background on comedy is on show in some stages, much like Green Book before it, although it is quite even-handed in its genre definition.
What isn’t as even-handed is the directors position on who he is portraying, it is quite clear from the outset that Adam McKay is not a fan of Dick Cheney, even though later in the film he makes more of an effort to portray him as a more sympathetic figure, the directors own views are made very clear in how he chooses to portray the subject material.
Putting political views aside, Cheney isn’t the most interesting figure to document on the surface, it is only when you start digging that you realise that Cheney was at the heart of almost every decision the Bush administration ever made, while the film is hardly a documentary, the points it makes are well-researched enough, and even referenced in some cases, it helps to build a full working view of the political climate.
Whatever McKay’s view on Cheney as a person, he clearly had the best intentions in mind when choosing who to portray him, Christian Bale’s ability to become his character is almost chameleon-like and it’s no different here, seeing the lengths he goes to to embody Cheney, gaining weight, shaving his head and learning his mannerisms are only the tip of the iceberg in an intriguingly layered performance, it’s hardly surprising it has got a nomination for Bale at most film awards, him having already won a Golden Globe for his performance, with the BAFTAs and the Oscars still to come, he may be one to watch for these awards.
The cast a whole is one of the films main strengths, using an ensemble cast to bring to life various political figures from the late 20th, and early 21st, century. There’s Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush himself, a performance which earned Rockwell his second Best Supporting Actor nomination in a row.
While boasting a cast that would make any film-maker jealous, there does feel like there’s a lack of spark in the early stages of the film, I think the problem lies with how unsympathetic Dick Cheney is, and quite frankly that extends to most characters in the film, we do get glimpses of a softer side, particularly surrounding his daughter Mary, where the film’s emotional heart ultimately lies, but beyond that we have no real reason to warm to Cheney, I’m well-aware that that may be the intention, but to make a main character deliberately unlikable is usually either pretentious or misguided, but I don’t quite get that impression here, it feels like the director is trying to make a statement, which is all very well, but in doing so you sacrifice a fair bit of investment.
As far as film-making goes, the method flits between the surreal and intense and the naturalistic and simple. There are a few scenes which completely take you by surprise, as the film’s general tone is one of a natural, realistic approach, simply portraying the vents as they are planned bureaucratically, which make the cut-away to the actual events all the more effective as a tool to shock the viewer, and are well-spaced as to not become routine.
There is a fair amount of style here then, enough to cover the unsympathetic main character? On that point I’m on the fence, however there is enough in here to see why it has gained its plaudits, but it is also a bit hard to engage with at its worst, yet it can also be a gripping political thriller, so it has variety to itself, and once the film is rolling towards the finish it becomes more gripping.
In conclusion, there are enough merits to recommend Vice, namely its cast and varying direction style, but it also struggles to make its protagonist likeable, however, making Dick Cheney likeable seems to be like making a king cobra more cuddly, so I can overlook that. It’s a good look at exactly how much power the American President has, and that is almost enough to make it a horror film, but it’s an entertaining ride while it’s there.