IN 2015, Adam McKay tried to make sense of the economic downturn in his satirical comedy, The Big Short.
McKay has a particular style. He uses comedy as a tool to educate. His characters often break away from scenes to talk directly to the audience, to explain complicated jargon or events that are difficult to follow. This style doesn’t suit everyone, but those who embrace McKay’s film-making techniques are in for a smart, witty treat.
For his latest outing, he looks at the life and career of Dick Cheney, Vice President to George W Bush. Cheney changed the course of US history, and in doing so had a knock-on effect around the world. Vice tells us how that happened.
It opens dramatically, sending the audience right on edge. It is 9/11, the towers have been hit and America has just changed forever. Cheney (Christian Bale) reacts by making questionable decisions in the White House bunker.
Next, we go back in time to the 1960s and learn Cheney was wild in his youth, constantly letting down his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), and getting arrested for drunk driving. After a particularly bad episode, he swears he is going to clean up his act and make his wife proud.
In politics, he finds a niche. It seems Cheney wasn’t actually that smart, academically, but had the drive to succeed. Early in his career, he works for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) during the Nixon era. He has little knowledge of politics, but as well as ambition, he has a great gift for blagging.
Cheney learns from Rumsfeld that the only way to succeed is to basically use bully tactics. The two become thick as thieves, inserting themselves in every aspect of White House life.
We follow Cheney’s career through the Nixon years, then under Ford, to the Bush Snr years, then the Clinton era. Under each President, Cheney learns to be savvier, and more devious.
He has personal struggles, having the first of many heart attacks. While he is out of commission, Lynne proves she can ably run the show: a force of nature, wrapped in Southern charm.
It is during George W Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) presidency that things really take a sinister turn. W is shown to be clueless and easily manipulated. Cheney uses his naivety, and his eagerness to please those around him, to his own advantage. It takes little effort to talk W into handing over powers to him that no Vice President ever had before.
Cheney uses this power, and we are given a nightmarish lesson in recent history. The War on Terror, the rise of ISIS, this and more are all played out under the watchful eye of Cheney, who plays with the world like pieces on a chess board.
In some ways, this is the scariest horror movie we are likely to see this year. It is bitingly funny which is perhaps why it becomes all the more sobering in the final act.
As in McKay’s previous work, characters often talk to the audience. A restaurant scene plays out as an explainer to a particular situation. It is hilarious and horrifying. An entire segment in the middle is a fantasy, showing us a different life for Cheney. It is smart, and again, very funny. At one point the characters speak in Shakespearean language.
The film has already done well in award season, and it is Bale who is getting most of the nods. His performance is flawless. He gained a significant amount of weight to take on Cheney’s physicality and clearly relished the role, getting right down into the soul of the man and what makes him tick.
Rockwell is outstanding as Dubya. At one point I actually thought that he was the man himself.
This is dark, zany, and full of zeal. It is a comedy like no other.
* Vice, released nationwide Friday, January 25, cert 15a, ****