Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams
In 2015 Adam McKay made The Big Short, a smart and savvy reconstruction of what caused the financial crisis. A complicated subject, he broke it down into layman’s terms. Used visual aids. Made it funny. That film was and is outspokenly political, fueled by anger at a reckless betrayal performed by a handful of seemingly unrepentant individuals. It garnered praise and a bunch of awards nominations. The new Adam McKay was a hit.
Whether or not The Big Short was a shrewd and calculated move on McKay’s part is hard to guess. I’d have liked to have said it wasn’t, and that it represents a passion project, made by a man with a lot of friends, in an industry ready to support him. However, its success may well have led to the abject failure of Vice, which attempts to capture the same lightning in a bottle while aiming at another target of McKay’s animosity.
Having gained a significant amount of weight and then further aided by a phenomenal make-up job, Christian Bale stars as Dick Chaney in this stilted, ramshackle biopic; a 135 minute character assassination that reports to tell facts, but which is hamstrung by its overwhelming bias and vitriol at a shitty man seemingly to blame for everything.
McKay has done his research. He’s connected the dots. And one imagines the room he wrote this movie in might resemble that of an addled detective told to stay off the case, but who has set up a pin-board in his basement so he can full-bore obsess, photocopied evidence strewn everywhere. Vice replicates that sense of mess, zipping back and forth through time, heavily reliant on on-screen text and often as not cutting to black seconds at a time so that McKay can get his breath back and refocus. Stock footage is used a lot for visual identifiers, and McKay also throws in plenty of documentary footage (albeit with his actors inserted). Throwing everything at the wall to get your point across evidences your own passion, but it is also chaotic and ugly. Where The Big Short felt cogent and ordered, Vice is a rant.
Bale is good. Encumbered by so much excess, his Chaney is prone to a few caricatured gestures (so many squints and winces) but, even so, one manages to lose sight of the transformation and live with the man. The trouble is – and this is also a problem of biopics that lionise their subjects – the stilted perspective makes it all so one-note. With Chaney writ large as America’s most unscrupulous opportunist, there’s really no heart to the film. It is fueled only by anger, which becomes wearying. Amy Adams is on hand often as Lynne Chaney – also plastered in make-up – but McKay presents her as somehow worse. In fact, she plays a similar role here as she did for Paul Thomas Anderson in The Master. She’s the power behind the man and in that way even more unforgiving.
Filling out the cast we find Sam Rockwell, scarily believable as George W Bush, and Steve Carell, who rehashes Brick Tamland for his impersonation of Donald Rumsfeld. This feels like a major misstep, and is in sharp contrast to his brilliant work in The Big Short. Carell becomes a sort of fulcrum of all the problems here when compared to McKay’s previous. While McKay’s roster of techniques remain the same, the biopic is not the same as the ‘ripped from the headlines’ reconstruction of his last film. It has different rules. Using the same schtick again doesn’t work. All you end up with is McKay showing you a laundry list of foreign policy atrocities while a bunch of actors make idiots of those responsible.
The preachy, condescending approach also assumes that the audience will have no prior knowledge of any of these events, most of them pretty recent. It’s actually pretty patronising.
Regular readers may have sussed that I tend to take a liberal viewpoint, that I’m excited by strong representation in film, that I am pleased by progressive approaches yadayadayada. A narrow view might therefore reason that Vice would be just right for me, as I share McKay’s leftist position. And I do believe that Dick Chaney has been a negative influence on US politics. But this kind of hectoring shadow-puppetry doesn’t further an argument. It merely bellows “THIS MAN WAS BAD”. In fact, it softens the culpability of others by making Chaney seem like the master manipulator that duped everyone. He’s McKay’s (literally) heartless Wizard Of Oz.
McKay would have done much better to have calmed down and made a documentary, instead of this ugly plea for further praise. Sorry, not this time.