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Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell
Released 25 January

Halfway through Adam McKay’s docusatire Vice, the credits roll as Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), retired from politics, sits in the sun with his family. It is a cruel joke, not only in the prospect of the former American vice president abandoning the corridors of power for golden retrievers and summer picnics, but more in waving a way out under our noses. Until this point, the audience has been under attack from a barrage of absent-minded cuts, parallel shots, and mediocre caricatures. The opening text informs us that the filmmakers have done their “fucking best” to tell the truth. What we get is a mess.

This was, of course, to be expected. McKay, having already flung off his farcical Anchorman days in pursuit of relevant cinema with 2008 financial crisis-drama, The Big Short, has evidently been scratching his head for a similar project. The benefit of a subject as secretive as Cheney is that fabrication becomes a necessity, something one would imagine to be difficult when the events depicted remain in living memory. That would be worthy of analysis if Vice was even remotely concerned with the past – it is a film made for the present, as obvious a veiled comment as Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator. Such tricks increase confusion to breaking point, serving only to worsen the chaos and noise of the contemporary world.

When Chaplin proposed his Nazi parody, Hollywood hollered resounding disapproval. Nothing good could come from such a deliberately antagonising picture except to prove that entertainers shouldn’t meddle with politics. In this censor-free era, one can imagine resistance only came to McKay through those who truly cared enough to stop him further disgracing himself. His self-consciousness is seen as George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) sits at his desk holding a small globe pencil sharpener discussing war in Iraq, a reference to the scene in which Hynkel dances around the Reich Chancellery Office with an inflatable Earth. It bursts for Hynkel, while world domination remains a pathetic possibility for Bush.

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The difference between Chaplin’s masterpiece and McKay’s car crash is that the former knows when to be silent. While the speech delivered by Hynkel’s Jewish double at the film’s climax is widely acclaimed, it is the weakest part of the film – its message, hitherto successfully delivered through subtle comedy, is suddenly writ large. Talking never ceases in Vice. Indeed, it thunders with raw bombast from opening to close, at which point Cheney turns to the camera and makes a brief attempt to explain his actions. Christian Bale delivers it with a forced growl, straining to mask his natural tones and project through endless prosthetic layers. At least Chaplin says something meaningful, and certainly without the nauseating smugness seen here.

The noise gets louder. Satire can misfire, but Vice doesn’t want simply to be comedic. It wants to give a version of events, while knowingly biased, that will teach American viewers a lesson or two about megalomaniacal practices in their nation. To do so, McKay pulls out every gimmick in the book. He forces us to read slide after slide of sickly yellow text, to watch real footage sandwiched between reconstructions and still photographs. Where in The Big Short there was something fun about complex economic theory being simplified by a bathing Margot Robbie or a poker-faced Selena Gomez, here not even Alfred Molina can work his charm to feel relevant in discussions of torture. It comes amidst a mind-boggling hodgepodge of devices, from Jesse Plemons’s narration to Soviet-style montage. Rather than saving itself for a show-stopping Odessa steps moment, Vice overworks itself into senseless banality.


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As Sergei Eisenstein intercut Alexander Kerensky with a mechanical peacock in October, his own historical realist ode to the Russian Revolution, so too are overt comparisons drawn in Vice. A tower of wobbling tea cups and fish in a river are motifs that snap us in and out of the drama, riding in non-linear fashion across Cheney’s career at breakneck speed. Along for the trip with Bale’s earthy grunts are a surprisingly bland Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, and Steve Carell portraying Donald Rumsfeld with a Brick Tamland-wheeze. Their snippet performances often give the impression of recurring cameos, never developing into believable people. The same must unfortunately be said for Alison Pill, whose narrative as Cheney’s gay daughter Mary provides a fascinating conflict to the veep’s Republican agenda. Perhaps McKay felt that to go further might allow him to explore Cheney as a human being, instead of a satanic statue. Then again, that does seem to be the point he is making.

A few faces amongst the torrent of images that awash the viewer stick. Torture victims. Tony Blair. Mike Pence. A beaming vintage Donald Trump. They go by in a flash but stay long enough to ensure you register them and give a knowing hum. It is a film deliberately designed to be seen by Americans, knowing that it will stir them into a frenzy of debate. Given the mania of the current climate and the fractious nature of society, such a childish display of hate-mongering can only be condemned. At least we in Britain can look on without investment, safe in our own strong and stable island across the sea. Hopefully someone will pick up a movie camera and share that with the world

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