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Film Review: Vice

8 February 19 words: Hilary Whiteside

Christian Bale gained over three stone, shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows and undertook a rigorous exercise routine to thicken his neck in order to play the role of Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's Vice. Was it worth it? 

Director: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell

Running time: 132 mins

Written and directed by Adam McKay, Vice has done pretty well during awards season, receiving 8 Academy Award and 6 BAFTA nominations. The film’s genre is mixed; it is certainly political and it is certainly satirical. It is also humorous (sometimes the wry type, sometimes the laugh out loud type) and it also adopts the form of a documentary. Loosely, the narrative charts the rise of Dick Cheney from hick-boy in 1963 Wyoming, having no more ambition than repairing power cables, to a powerful, ruthless politician using steely cunning and overtly ruthless behaviour to realise this ambition. Of course, in the background there is the presence of his equally ambitious wife, supporting and giving encouragement to his shenanigans in true Lady Macbeth style (and yes, this reference does become relevant). We follow Cheney through his internship to a Republican politician, Donald Rumsfeld (political leanings randomly picked) through to becoming running mate to George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential elections. And the rest is history.

One of the problems besetting the film is the enormous time scale McKay attempts to cover. We are taken through a hectic whirlwind of key political moments in recent American history within the time frame of two hours. Also, into this mix is thrown an uncertain chronology of events using flashbacks and rapid projections forward in time. This creates unease, which is probably the director’s point, but frankly can be confusing, even with a reasonable grasp of the more recent history of the USA. For instance, we are plunged almost randomly into historical documentary footage of the Vietnam war, the bombing of Cambodia, uncertainty in the Middle East, the falling of the Twin Towers, the list is lengthy and certainly relevant to Cheney’s reign of power. However, this does make for turbulent viewing and one has to have faith in the director that all will eventually make some sort of sense.

Who else but McKay could have pulled this off?

McKay appears to use every available cinematic device in the director’s handbook, many to brilliant effect. He uses freeze framing, cutaways, news montages, closing credits mid-way in the film (and yes, some of the audience did begin to reach for their coats) and a brilliant interlude where a waiter recites ‘house specials’ each highlighting a particular political outrage committed by gang Cheney. There is a catalogue of pop up, often humorous, captions which randomly appear on screen and a bed scene where the characters (bearing similarities with the Macbeths) deliver their lines in Shakespearean blank verse. These devices add to the overall vibrancy of the film also giving McKay an opportunity to develop his sardonic tone.

What does ground the film and provide a continuum is McKay’s use of an on-screen narrator, which allows McKay the opportunity of making comment on situations and directing the audience to his way of thinking; we even get to meet the man and his family in a series of cameos. However, the relevance of the narrator and how he shapes Cheyney’s life is not revealed until the film’s conclusion...and believe me it’s unexpected.

McKay’s casting is key to the success of the film. The acting is superlative. Christian Bale metamorphosises into an unhealthy, pasty looking ‘dough boy’. His demeanour (aided of course by prosthetics and enormous weight gain) is startlingly convincing, and his mimicking of Cheney’s voice and his mannerisms are absolutely convincing. He effortlessly segues into character and will surely be recognised for his handling of Cheney's persona with a  significant award. Amy Adams plays her part as Lynne Cheney with equal conviction and aplomb: she is every bit the lioness and convincing executor of her husband’s career.

This film explores and attempts to contextualise the current state of American politics. McKay examines and defines the knock-on effects of Cheney’s lengthy reign of power and how these have impacted not only America, but the world today. He concludes his narrative as Obama is sworn in as President. Ambitious, certainly. Who else but McKay could have pulled this off?

Did you know? As Cheney has had well-documented heart problems for most of his adult life, Christian Bale had to study heart attack prevention as part of his method. His tips ended up saving Adam McKay's life, after the director suffered a heart attack during post-production.

Vice is screening at Broadway Cinema until Friday 25 January

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