Snarling, coiled and deeply sinister, Christian Bale invited controversy at the Golden Globes for saying that this performance as Vice President Dick Cheney was inspired by Satan. But while Vice is confident in its leading man, it never quite figures out what to do with him. Until the final third, the film just feels like a sequence of vaguely connected events rather than an actual story, and so it never really hangs together.
Scene to scene, Bale captures perfectly the bureaucratic malice of Cheney, and that central performance, together with Amy Adams’ extraordinary rendition of Lynne Cheney, redeems the film from mediocrity. The two share a chemistry that animates the film, with Lynne’s ambition driving her husband’s lust for power in a dynamic straight out of House of Cards. But while House of Cards worked because of its operatic quality – larger-than life, improbable and melodramatic – Vice adopts a more realist tone. And it is the reality of Cheney’s monstrosity that ultimately lets down this approach: when your magnificent bastard is fictional, we can’t help but root for him and his underhanded schemes. It is harder to root for a real-life figure who got away scot-free with the unconscionable crimes the film repeatedly reminds us he committed. The tone veers wildly between sardonic and appalled, never quite striking the balance right. It seems to want to be fun, but it never manages to find the fun, and in the process just comes off as a bit crass. A skit where Cheney and his staff pick atrocities off a menu is particularly misjudged.
Comparisons to the Academy Award-winning The Big Short are impossible to avoid, not just because they share a director but because the directing here practically invokes his previous film. The passage of time is announced with clips and photos from the period in question, with a voice-over narration by a mysterious side character in the film. Thematically, they both deal with the intentional flouting of the rule of law in the 2000s. They are all but explicitly companion pieces. But the comparison is not a flattering one to Vice. For one, The Big Short had heart and sincerity. And to its credit, Vice manages this at times – the scenes where the invasion of Iraq commences are genuinely gut-wrenching – but those scenes stick out precisely because they buck the broader trend. The Big Short manages a righteous condemnation of the finance industry. Vice just seems a little smug.
Vice’s worst sin, though, is not its nihilism, but it’s shallowness. The Big Short managed to feel full and authentic as it plunged you into the world of high finance, making intricate financial procedure somehow seem exciting. Vice should have done the same for American foreign policy, but instead relies simply on cheap cliches. An early scene sets the tone – Cheney asks Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld “what do we believe in?’ and Rumsfeld simply laughs in his face. But the scene doesn’t ring true, because they did believe in something, however monstrous that something was. The Neoconservative ideology of realpolitik, ‘American interests’ and security-through-force that led the US to Iraq had been a feature of the country’s politics since the early days of the Cold War before finding its avatar in Cheney, and there is nothing to suggest that the man himself was not a true believer, or indeed, a zealot. Only at the end do we get to see Cheney justify himself, and it feels like the what the film had been missing all along.
“I will not apologise for keeping your family safe”, he growls into the camera, and it’s chilling. Had the film really tried to sink its teeth into the ruthless, hollow calculus of the American security establishment, it would have been a great deal more interesting and illuminating as a piece of political cinema. Instead, we are just left staring into the sucking void where Cheney’s soul should be for two hours, and it’s hard to make that particularly compelling. He has no real character arc, no significant development. He starts the film as a one-note power-hungry bastard and finishes as one. With a performance as good as the one Bale delivered, it would be nice to really try to get a sense of what made Cheney tick.
Catch Vice at Macrobert Arts Centre until the Wednesday the 27th of February.