Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, is a film that always felt on the verge of ascending into something truly incredible; something that completely captivated you – and that’s all because of the film’s primary focus (Dick Cheney and the tornado of people around him) and the actors that perfectly embody some of history’s most defining politicians. But… there is one massive and obtrusive obstacle in the way of this really good film from being something truly great, and that is Adam McKay’s ‘shock and awe’ style directing, and frankly… his ego. So, the question is: does this film’s incredibly rich characters and its monumentally important story break through all the nonsense of Adam McKay’s writing and directing and deliver something worth seeing? Well, let’s figure that out together in this review, shall we?
Vice tells the true (but certainly exaggerated) story of Dick Cheney’s – played by Christian Bale – rise to total domination of US politics and his subsequent power moves that reshaped the world and still effect it to this day.
At the unmissable and unavoidable forefront of Vice is a character who truly is fascinating to watch, and whose journey was one I was infinitely eager to continue being a part of. Dick Cheney was someone who seemed destined to have a film about his life and his career conquests be made about him, and it is a life and career of conquests that just don’t stop giving.
My knowledge and understanding of Cheney has always been limited to his time in office as Vice President to the Bush administration and what he did during that time in office. If you know anything about Cheney’s time in office, then you probably know what kind of perceptions I had of the man.
So, I found it to be a truly interesting turn of events when I actually found myself gravitating towards Cheney and actually finding him to be a pretty likeable person who in some respects I admired and respected. There were of course still elements to him that shocked me and repelled me, but all those elements when brought together served to heighten my interest in the man and his story. He was a man who turned his life around; who got himself a career and who made sure to care and support for his family like any good parent should. For much of Vice, Dick Cheney was a person who I found myself fascinated by and eager and excited to learn more about on his journey.
But there was an issue that stood in the way of that eagerness and excitement – but unfortunately not the only issue to plague an experience I felt I could never fully lose myself in, but I’ll touch upon that more in a moment. What stood in the way was that structurally and focus wise, Vice was at times a disjointed and unfocused experience that was unable to properly explore much of Cheney’s earlier life and career. And it’s because there was clear desperation and intent by Adam McKay to get to the part in Cheney’s life when he was Vice President, thus everything that leads to that time is more like a rushed highlight reel, rather than a comprehensive and fully explorative look at Dick Cheney, his early career and his commitment to his family.
Which I think was a disservice to both the story of the character – a story I lapped up every bit of it I could – and an incredible performance by Christian Bale, who literally transformed himself for the role and then went onto completely disappear into said role. It was a performance I was so wowed by and so transfixed by, that early on, I genuinely stopped seeing Christian Bale, and I only saw Dick Cheney. It’s yet further proof that Bale as an actor is one of the best we have working right now. He gives over every part of himself to a role – and while it will undoubtedly cause health issues for him; something I’m worried about – you know that if Bale has signed on and committed to a role, that he’s going to give no less than his absolute best. I foresee him picking up a few best actor awards during the current award season, and deservedly so!
However, there is a nagging element that is both lurking in this review (waiting to be spoken about) and also continuously existing in my head, and that is the intrusive, unnecessarily verbose and honestly annoying style of Adam McKay.
McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, was a film I found unbearable to watch. It felt indulgent in the worst kind of way; it felt more like a caressing of the director’s ego and less a film exploring the total collapse of the economic system and the people responsible for it. Vice isn’t as bad as The Big Short, but that still doesn’t mean McKay and his need to show off how funny and clever he is doesn’t interfere with the film. This might sound odd to say, but it was often the case when watching Vice that I wished McKay and his style of film would get out-of-the-way and let the far more compelling stature of the story and the characters take centre stage, but sadly, the ego of McKay often didn’t allow for that.
And what is it about McKay’s style of writing and directing that I felt didn’t work? Well, with McKay’s style, you’re never left alone as an audience member. He’s always there, throwing unnecessary and distracting noise your way. A scene can’t just play out where you’re left to watch it and decipher it for yourself… good god no! McKay has to insert overtly obvious dialogue, secondary images (not specifically related to what you’re watching) or celebrity cameos, all in hopes of… well I’m not exactly sure, because as I’ll continue to say: it’s all completely unnecessary.
Rather than just having the scene speak for themselves; rather than letting the compelling story or rich set of characters pull you in an intrigue you, McKay has to overlay narration, or he throws words on to the screen to explain something, because you’re not smart enough to understand it, or he flashes a bunch of images on the screen to fill any hint of silence. He does everything to try to pull you out of the experience and shake a set of shiny keys in front of you, when all you need is the story that’s in front of you and the competency to tell that with the artistic craft of filmmaking. McKay and his style is the epitome of ‘tell don’t show’ and it’s infuriating!
I think it’s pretty clear that Adam McKay and his approach to filmmaking doesn’t work for me, and it was certainly a massive concern for me when walking into this film, but… despite all the noise and distraction put in by McKay, Vice was still a film I found myself utterly captivated by. Once I had acclimated to McKay’s ways and saw the scale of the story on offer, I pushed forward and let the terrifying wonder of it all wash over me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film since seeing it. I think it truly shows how compelling its story and its characters are; that I can look past all of the unnecessary nonsense (which there’s a lot of) and see the greatness in this film.
So much so, that I vividly remember sitting there during the final scene in awe of what I was watching. I had disappeared into the story of a man whom I’m morally conflicted about and whom I think I respect but also detest, and it all keeps me thinking about my experience being a part of such a divisive person’s story, and it excites me.
I’m going to recommend, Vice, without a doubt. Yes, there’s a lot in this film that annoyed my and did its best to pull me out of the engrossing experience I was having, but I think for most people that won’t be an issue. In fact, I think most people will enjoy McKay’s ego-charged style of directing; it’s just not for me. But still, this film is something well worth seeing and it’s one I can see myself writing and thinking about more in the coming award season.
I would absolutely love to know what you thought of Vice and my review of it, so please jump down into those comments and let me know any opinions, thoughts, feedback you may have. If you’re interested in knowing when a new review goes live or about the podcast I’m launching on the 21st of January, then please follow me over on Twitter – @GavinsRamblings and @MeanderingPod. Lastly, I want to thank you for stopping by and giving my sill ramblings a chance. It really does mean so much to me! Thanks, and have yourself a fantastic day!