Vice (2018, Adam McKay)
When an actor radically transforms their appearance for a role, there’s always the danger that we’ll lose the character and focus on the performer – spend the duration trying to find the recognizable underneath the make-up and the prosthetics. In Raging Bull, Robert De Niro played two versions of the boxer Jake LaMotta. Late period LaMotta was depressingly over-the-hill and distinctly overweight, and to achieve the look, method man Bob ate all the pies and then some. When we first see this incarnation, we can’t help (at least initially) marvelling at the feat of metamorphosis rather than immediately falling into the world of the story. This is the irony of an obsession with ‘realism’: it can lead to a loss of the suspension of disbelief.
In Vice, Christian Bale has been transformed into former US Vice President Dick Cheney – he of the calm manner and fascistic outlook. Physically you would never think that Bale would be right for this role but it works; the make-up job is impressive. And if we may initially look for Batman underneath all the maquillage, it helps that the early part of the film cuts between Cheney at different ages and young off-the-rails Dick looks a lot closer to straight-up Christian. We accept Bale as Cheney more readily than we might if we only saw the Bush-era version, with added girth and receding hairline.
An issue for Bale, and the film, is how to remain interesting while accurately portraying someone who avoided being overly demonstrative in public; Cheney was almost deliberately uncharismatic, a true puppet-master. He also worked hard to reveal as few details about himself as possible. On Radio 4’s The Film Programme (24/1/19) director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short) says he consulted Cheney’s autobiography but that he’s never read one “that says less”; the account resolutely sticks to the “standard official” version of events.
The narrator-figure in Vice, played by Jesse Plemons, describes our protagonist as “monotone” and “like a ghost”, yet Bale manages to pull off the trick of subtly revealing the searing ambition while maintaining a calm, reserved exterior. It helps that he has Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld to play off. Carell lights up every scene he’s in with a sociopathic gleam in his eye and has several laugh-out-loud moments. In the domestic scenes, Amy Adams fully convinces as a woman who is well aware of the glass ceiling and is therefore determined to make sure the man she signed up with doesn’t blow his chance to rise as high as possible. She has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her.
McKay’s approach to maintaining audience interest is to crank up the pace and assault us with technique, and this is no bad thing. The starting point is the style from The Big Short: voice-over, freeze frames, direct address to camera, and a sense of humour normally absent from biopics and other accounts of ‘real events’. Essentially, it’s GoodFellas/Casino/Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese mixed with a bit of Michael Moore (and maybe even a little Adam Curtis). However, McKay goes further in Vice, such as throwing in visual depictions of metaphor: shots of fly fishing (one of Cheney’s hobbies, along with accidentally shooting people) and a precarious tower of teacups – it’s a technique used in TV news taken to a comic extreme.
McKay also gives us a fake ending (complete with credits) halfway through the film, and a scene in which Alfred Molina plays a waiter offering Cheney, Rumsfeld and their cronies a menu of such delights as extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques. Some will go for this kind of bold (or flippant) storytelling; some won’t. I did.
What ultimately comes through is how unexceptional a human being Cheney is – no great level of intelligence, no great ideas…just someone who saw his chance to wield great power from behind the scenes and took it with a little too much relish.