Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Compelling viewing."

Ever since it was announced, Vice, a dramatisation of Dick Cheney's rise to power, has been the subject of intense speculation. Christian Bale has hit the headlines with another of his spectacular physical transformations, but it's really what he does with the character that makes this compelling viewing. With much of the dialogue improvised on set, he had to know exactly what Cheney would know when and how he would use language, on top of the intricacies of adopting his body language and the intricacies of his facial expressions. Never mind the musculature he built for American Psycho or the way he starved himself for The Machinist - it's here that he produces the finest work of his career to date. The audacity of his scheming aside, Cheney has always been known as a quiet man. Bale captures this but shows us the intensity beneath the surface - the incisiveness, the quick wit, the delight in getting away with it. In scenes with Amy Adams, who plays his equally devious wife, he even verges on making Cheney sexy.

It's one thing to draw cheeky newspaper cartoons or perform a few satirical sketches on Saturday Night Live. It's another to produce a feature length, damning biopic about somebody who is still alive and has a personal fortune of at least $19m - a good budget for lawyers. If anyone can match Cheney's audacity, it's writer/director Adam McKay. He does so in a way that's highly mannered and self-conscious, something that will doubtless put off some viewers, but he has the skill and intelligence to back it up. A brilliantly delivered scene in which Bale and Adams segue into iambic pentameter is joyously pretentious - truly expert trolling. As for the final, mid-credits scene, it comes close to making the film bulletproof but will sadly be missed by most of those it's directly aimed at, as they'll have walked out already.

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Let's be plain: this is not an attempt to depict the life of one of the most notorious political influencers of recent decades without bias or snark. It is, however, based firmly in fact and its backs up its dramatic assertions with little asides in the manner that worked so well in another recent Bale film, The Big Short. The thoroughness of the research behind it shows in the details of sets, costumes and props as well as in the dialogue, with superbly detailed reproductions throughout. This contributes to a realism whose contrast with the more outrageous comedic moments contributes significantly to their impact, much like the way that Cheney's ability to make himself useful in an unassuming way contrasted with his disproportionate power at the moments when he chose to take action.

If there's one person who really gets a rough ride here, it's the younger George Bush, first seen blitzed out of his face as he crashes an elegant soirée. As Sam Rockwell seems unable to play anyone, no matter how awful, without making him at least a bit endearing, he does have something on his side, but the film does nothing to enhance his intellectual reputation. It's kinder to Colin Powell, who is played by Tyler Perry as a man of conscience, albeit a compromised one.

Alongside the political humour (and, not infrequently, horror), the film frequently makes sport of the conventions of the biopic, its tendency to apologism and its preference for familiar narratives even when it wishes to present its subjects as extraordinary. This parallel stream of humour ensures that it never feels dry even when at its most esoteric. It's not a film that panders to its audience, having numerous jokes which will go over the heads of most viewers, but there is sufficient variety that most people are likely to find a few of these they can take pleasure in. It's a rare thing today to see a big budget production that's so completely unapologetic, so confident in its own vision and so free of any obvious studio bullshit. Vice is, in places, very, very dark, but it is also delicious.

Reviewed on: 29 Dec 2018
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The story of Dick Cheney's rise to power and manipulation of US policy, presidents and process.
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Read more Vice reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Adam McKay

Writer: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan

Year: 2018

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


BIFF 2019

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