Of all the fatuous talk of coming together and crossing the aisle that Democrats have been spouting even after two years of openly hostile and rule-breaking behaviour from their Republican counterparts, perhaps nothing has conjured up more disgust than their ahistorical rehabilitation of George W Bush. Thank goodness, then, for Adam McKay, who not only still sees the Bush years with clear eyes, but is also here to remind us that one of America’s very stupidest presidents was controlled for his whole reign by one of the most evil men in the country’s history. Vice is a searing, furious work, as scattershot as its predecessor, The Big Short, but also just as funny, entertaining, and genuinely informative.
McKay has an excuse for his very broad focus. To examine the legacy of Dick Cheney is to encompass almost everything detestable in our current millennium, from the Iraq War and its subsequent spawning of ISIS to the financial crash, via the rapidly approaching climate apocalypse. Vice takes in the majority of his adult life, examining how a boring, violent oaf who couldn’t stop having heart attacks ended up being the arbiter of not just how people lived, but whether they were allowed to live at all.
Christian Bale is fantastic as Cheney, physically transformed but also conjuring the sadism and lust for power from somewhere deeper. It’s a bold move to have your film’s ‘protagonist’ or, at least, main character be someone so obviously odious, but McKay’s writing is up to the task, and so is his leading man. Amy Adams and Steve Carell are also great as Lynne Cheney and the psychopathic Donald Rumsfeld respectively, though the star of the supporting cast is, somewhat inevitably, Sam Rockwell. As George W, he’s constantly hilarious, capturing the humiliating stupidity of the man, and he makes the absolute most of his limited screen time.
There are a lot of big laughs in Vice, from simple pratfalls to McKay messing around with the biopic format in some incredibly bold ways, but they do often take a back seat to education and righteous anger. As a crash course in the snowballing decline of the American presidency from 1963 to 2008 (with the brief respite of Jimmy Carter’s single term) it contains new, shocking information for all but the most ardent students of US politics. The rage obviously ramps up once Cheney steps into the VP office.
McKay makes no bones about the fact that Bush and Cheney, with the help of sentient sludge heap Justice Antonin Scalia, outright stole the 2000 election from Al Gore, and this cadre of criminals are powerfully repulsive throughout. Watching Cheney force the US into the Iraq War, motivated by his ties to private oil concerns and a need to command the pain and death of others simply to feel big, is properly infuriating. This time out, the fourth-wall breaking cutaways that explain the more convoluted concepts aren’t as fun as in The Big Short, but McKay does find very clever and evocative ways to visually signal the tragic backwards steps made by every new regime.
As a film with a full grasp of historical context, it’s not just the Republicans that get put on blast. Democrats are hardly let off the hook. Obama’s failure to prosecute any of the Iraq War’s architects for war crimes is quickly explored with the requisite disdain, as is Hilary Clinton’s support for the invasion. With the kind of life and death power that is afforded in the halls of Washington DC comes a sickness of the soul, argues McKay, a sickness so powerful that it trickles down through entire bloodlines.
For a while, it looks like Cheney’s relationship with his daughters (played by Alison Pill and Lily Rabe), one of whom is gay, might be his saving grace. But even that is poisoned by the ambition of this hideous family. Whenever the energy might be dipping, McKay finds another way to raise your hackles – cuts between beltway insiders bemoaning their loss of status and the people that their policies are murdering by the hundreds are particularly nauseating. It’s thrilling to see a mainstream, Best Picture-nominated movie go for the throat like this and even if it doesn’t always 100% land, it’s a vital, energising experience.