Tuesday, 23 July 2019

VICE ★★★★☆

If there was one crime at this year’s Academy Awards, it was the choice for Best Actor. Don’t get me wrong, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury performance was great – he totally nailed the role and did his absolute best with what the film’s pretty abysmal script allowed. Any other year, I’d applaud the Academy’s decision and agree wholeheartedly with his win. But in 2019, the decision was way off. You see, Christian Bale was also nominated for his mind-blowingly good and surely future career-defining role performance as Dick Cheney.

Adam McKay’s Vice explores the epic story of how Cheney, a bureaucratic Washington insider, quietly became the most powerful man in the world as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today. But while most filmmakers would deal with Cheney’s dark rise to power in a tedious, slow and over-stuffed jargon-filled epic, McKay does the unthinkable. He takes the story of one of US politics’ most dangerous and controversial figures and turns it into a hilarious, albeit dark, comedy romp. 

However, the film hasn’t exactly won this praise across the board. One of the most polarising films of recent memory and certainly as controversial as its subject himself, Vice split critical reception down the middle with some finding it to be “a clumsy display of political hatred” and others finding it to be an “entertaining nihilist biopic”. When you’re dealing with a political figure and leaning so heavily in one direction – Cheney is portrayed as something of a pantomime villain here, with Christian Bale thanking Satan for inspiration for the performance when picking up his Golden Globe – you’re bound to rub people the wrong way. It is, like Thanos, inevitable. 

But without getting into the murky waters of politics and remaining totally neutral on that side of things, I still applaud the film wholeheartedly for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is absolutely no doubting the balls on Adam McKay to make a film like this when his subject is still alive and kicking, not to mention the fact that Cheney still has many supporters. Taking such a controversial and infamous figure and turning his life into a dark comedy is a ballsy move. We can agree on that, surely? Furthermore, the concept of making what any other filmmaker would make as a straight-faced drama into such a blackly comic ride is such an innovative and ambitious take on the genre that it warrants respect. Sure, some parts don’t exactly hit the landing – some of the more meta-jokes (such as the early ending credits sequence and the Shakespearean bed scene) do come off as a little forced – there’s still a lot that works.

Some have also criticised the film for being too patronising. The film’s narrator often reduces the political lobbying and backstabbing into more accessible and simplified explanations, making movie-goers with an interest in politics feel a little pandered to. But hey, I say go for it – there’s enough complicated and for lack of a better word “serious” political movies out there, I’m all for a simplified and easy-to-watch romp. That being said, while the political manoeuvrings may be easy to watch, the darkness certainly isn’t. 

Vice does occasionally drop the comedic delivery in some of the film’s darker moments and is all the more powerful for it. Naturally, there are no jokes to be made around 9/11 or the war in Iraq, and these sequences are dealt with maturely. They are, in fact, all the more frightening as a result – a montage of real photos from the aftermath of terrorist attacks are harrowing and uncomfortable to view, with this sensation heightened by the preceding scenes’ sense of humour.

But as I said at the beginning of this review, the film just belongs to Christian Bale. A supporting cast of Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell all shine, but Bale’s transformative performance as the intimidating and complex titular vice president is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a performance for the ages that will surely go down in history as Bale’s finest, and one that was far more deserving of the Best Actor Oscar than Rami Malek. But hey, what do I know, I’m not part of the Academy. They’re just not returning my calls…

On the whole, Vice is sure to go down as one of the most controversial and divisive films of the decade, but it’s certainly up there with the best. The staggering ambition and innovative nature of the film - and the lead performance from Bale – make this one an absolute belter. You may not agree with the film’s political leanings, but you can’t fault the craft. 

Sam Love

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