With the obvious exception of writer/director Adam McKay, I find it hard to believe that anybody believed a biopic about former US Vice-President Dick Cheney would prove particularly interesting, let alone funny. Then again McKay has a history of making the mundane amusing and, with Vice, he has delivered insight into a notoriously private individual, delving into aspects of his personality and his position that have never previously been explored in any detail. Of course, as a fictional telling of events, the accuracy of what transpires on screen must be regarded with an element of suspicion, but it does afford McKay the freedom to make something that defies its political roots to emerge as a remarkably entertaining look at the man who really ran the country during the time of George W Bush’s presidency.
Whilst it would be disingenuous to suggest that Bale is unrecognisable beneath the make-up and prosthetics, the resemblance to Cheney is uncanny as the actor once again puts himself through a physical transformation to fully embrace the role which, regardless of what you think of Bale as a performer or an individual, is a commitment to craft that demands respect. Neither McKay nor Bale seem interested in trying to make Cheney particularly likeable and they certainly don’t expect us to believe that his contribution to American politics was driven by anything other than ego and self-interest. More than anything, the film wants us to know that Cheney’s wife Lynne (Amy Adams) is as much responsible for everything he achieved, refusing from the earliest days of their relationship to accept a man who didn’t have the desire to make something of himself. McKay doesn’t spend too long on the days prior to Cheney entering the political sphere beyond establishing the fact that he was a drunk with little ambition before Lynne made it clear that he needed to get his act together if he expected her to stick around.
Cheney’s political career began in 1969 as an intern for Congressman William Steiger during the Nixon Administration, before taking up a position in the office of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) and holding various positions in the years that followed, eventually succeeding Rumsfeld as White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford. From 1978, Cheney served ten years as Congressman for Wyoming before being appointed as Secretary of Defence by George Bush Snr, a position he held for four years and during which he oversaw the Operation Desert Storm insurgency into Iraq. Come the election of Bill Clinton, Cheney moved away from politics to take up a job as CEO of Halliburton and, at this point of the story, McKay runs a fake credits sequence to suggest, as Cheney seemed to believe at the time, that this was the end of his political career. However, when George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) comes calling with an offer of the Vice-Presidency, Cheney’s initial reluctance soon dissipates and he finds himself back in the game, having negotiated a raft of responsibilities that see him become the most powerful Vice-President in history, wielding considerable authority and influence on policy surrounding taxation, the environment and the military and intelligence agencies.
Yes, Rockwell’s Bush Jnr is as dim witted as we remember, but he actually becomes more likeable when it becomes apparent that he understands his (considerable) limitations and is willing to let Cheney take the reins on all of the most important aspects of the government. Cheney, who is not necessarily any more qualified or competent than his boss, relishes the power with which he has been afforded and he uses it to pump up fears of global terrorism, wage a useless war that resulted in the deaths of thousands and then persuade Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) to lie to Congress about the existence of the WMDs that were used as justification for the invasion. We are led to believe that the other side of Cheney is a loving husband and father to daughters Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe); that is until the latter makes a run for the senate and takes a stand against gay marriage that enrages her lesbian sister but comes with a nodding endorsement from daddy. Having won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Big Short, McKay again melds humour and drama seamlessly and draws great performances from his cast to illuminate the absurdities of a political system in which even the most mediocre among us can reach the highest levels of power.