America: State of a Nation pt.III
Adam McKay’s Vice, a scabrously funny take-down of former VP Dick Cheney, features at its centre a barn-storming, prosthetically-enhanced performance by Christian Bale.
In The Big Short (2015), Adam McKay’s previous film as writer-director, Christian Bale was the most compelling presence, playing a socially inept but perceptive hedge fund manager. It was typical of his commitment to physically challenging roles, but pales compared to his extraordinary transformation as Dick Cheney in Vice. But it’s only one of the attractions in this wildly irreverent satire. A portrait of Cheney from his early years as a heavy drinking blue collar worker through to his sobering up, returning to college and gradually becoming part of the Washington establishment and corporate elite, the film walks a knife-edge between comedy and a sobering reflection on Cheney’s dubious achievements. And it’s all presented in a style that recalls Oliver Stone’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink stylistic approach to recent history.
What’s fascinating about McKay is how quickly he graduated from frat-boy Will Ferrell comedies to becoming a serious Oscar contender and admired political satirist. Originally a director – and occasional performer – on Saturday Night Live, where he met Ferrell and many of the actors who would appear in his subsequent comedies, he made his name in film directing the commercial hits Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Step Brothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010). After directing an Anchorman sequel in 2013, he bought the rights to Michael Lewis’ acclaimed account of the small group of people who bet short on the US financial market, which went bust in 2008. A labyrinthine tale that doesn’t immediately cry out for a movie adaptation, The Big Short is a masterclass in taking a complex topic and spinning out a cogent and engaging screenplay from it. Moreover, McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph gave the director’s film a savage edge that had been missing from his previous work. Employing a large ensemble cast, the film’s shift between comedy, drama and genuine moral outrage perfectly suited its subject. But such an original was surely a one-off. How many other subjects would work with such an approach? The multi-faceted life of Dick Cheney is one.
Vice works because, like the (il)logic of the Wall Street landscape was torn apart in 2008 and the traders who navigated their way through a CDO universe (reading Lewis’ book would be a better option than my trying to explain here what that financial instrument does), Dick Cheney is both complex and inscrutable. A man of few words but innumerable deeds, he is the perfect subject for McKay’s new found style. (As Silicone Valley entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes – the one who made and lost a fortune claiming that she had created the perfect home blood test kit – will likely be in McKay’s forthcoming Bad Blood.) And his film is as far from objective as it is possible to get.
In Bale, McKay once again has his perfect foil. Alongside an equally impressive Amy Adams as Lynn Cheney – appearing in their third film together after The Fighter (2010) and American Hustle (2013) – Bale stuns not so much with his physical makeover, but because he successfully conveys, through layers of latex, the spirit and will of a driven, wily and ferociously intelligent man. In particular, he captures Cheney’s quietude, even in moments of global chaos. Bale’s eyes convey a man who not only searches for the right course of action to take, but one that is beneficial to his own agenda. McKay never goes so far as to say it, but there is a sense that the events that took place on September 11, 2001 were tailor-made for Cheney’s long-term plan.
Vice is divided evenly on either side of the 9/11 attacks. Cheney’s early life is presented in a more jocular light, from his carousing with drinking buddies, to his early days in Congress. Humour still remains in the scenes that follow the Al Qaeda attack, but the film understandably takes on a darker tinge. And though the film pans out, traveling to different parts of the world, it is all from the perspective of Cheney’s actions. (This is where McKay’s worldview would likely differ from Oliver Stone’s, who would likely opt for a more expansive attack on American foreign policy at this point.) Vice confines itself more to personalities. Complex situations tend to be interspersed with Cheney’s own activities and his health, which hangs precariously throughout. (It also prompts one of the film’s more surprising moments. There’s also a brilliant fake ending and a Shakespearean take on the Cheney’s domestic life.)
Amy Adams, McKay regular Steve Carrell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons and Sam Rockwell are all excellent in their roles. Adams in particular proves why she is heir to Meryl Streep’s gift for shining in any role. But Bale dominates. He invests himself completely in the role and, voter’s political affiliations notwithstanding, deserves to dominate the awards season. But Vice is also affirmation of McKay’s transformation as a director. It’s proof that The Big Short was more than a one-off and at a time when American politics is becoming both weirder and crueller with each passing day, he might just be the perfect person to chronicle it.
Adam McKay’s Vice plays on our screens from Friday 25 January