The arrival of Vice as an award season contender is something of an unusual scenario.
Nominated for a large bucketful of awards, including multiple Oscars, the Dick Cheney biopic Vice has the dubious distinction of being one of the lower rated films by critics to do so.
It may have slightly slipped under the radar given that Bohemian Rhapsody has had similar luck in getting these gigs and problems with its director and accusations of how it depicts Freddie Mercury, but this is also a true life drama where reaction has been mixed, to be generous.
Indeed, this can be noted from reviews that don’t just follow the usual positive or negative mix, but also struggle to work out how it treats the central character. Some criticised the film for offering nothing but condemnation, while others criticised it for being too sympathetic for such a controversial figure.
Such arguments are perhaps par for the course in contemporary American political-related discourse, given the polarisation of such discussions has accelerated in recent years.
But beyond the bluster, the question asks whether or not the film is as good as its performances – most notably Christian Bale in the key role.
The film is something of an asymmetric narrative, keeping broadly to following Cheney’s life from college drop-out via an assortment of mid-to-high ranking posts in Republican governments before becoming Vice-President to George W Bush and effectively running the country with Bush as a figurehead to take the flak.
To try and depict this, the film tries all manner of narrative tricks. There are unusual scenes that include mock-Shakespeare dialogue, fake end credits, fourth wall breaks, flashes of real world brutality from Cheney’s torture programs, frequent use of flash-back and flash-forward, clips spoken by a newsreader and a detached narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose connection is made gruesomely apparent late on.
One certainly can’t deny it is an inventive and ambitious sprawl of a movie, throwing all manner of tricks to make its process work. Quite a lot of it works, too – indeed, the fake end credits is a highlight, while the film zips along very well.
But compared to writer/director Adam McKay’s previous work The Big Short, the laughs are harder to extract.
It may well be the storyline makes it tougher to extract them, as does the insertion of hard real world strands – a snippet of torture here, an abduction off an Italian street there, full showing of waterboarding. Some of this may well illustrate the true nastiness of what Cheney imposed, but it feels quite jarring when one considers what the rest of the film is aiming for.
To some extent, however, it feels like the film takes a while to reach the point where most will be in for. There is enough intrigue for the film’s development as Cheney makes his way into the Washington establishment, but one feels the film could’ve skipped some of this to allow more exploration of the big stuff in the 2000’s.
At its heart, the film has great performances. Carrell as Rumsfeld is an excellent runner, providing a jovial streak, while Amy Adams excels as Lynne Cheney.
The supporting performance that has got a lot of the awards traction is Sam Rockwell as George W Bush. Its easy to forget to some extent that Bush was seen as a rough-around-the-edges inexperienced candidate when he was first nominated ahead of the 2000 election.
Whether the real Bush was so easily manipulatable by his real VP is going to be open to debate for years – not least given how much secrecy surrounds this era of American politics. But Rockwell does sell it well. Its an impressively accurate impersonation of Bush.
Of course, the star and central turn is Bale’s Cheney. His transformation over the course of the film is startling, turning slowly as the decades pass from a slightly pudgier looking Bale to an almost note-perfect rendition of Cheney’s quiet snarl.
His performance is highly engaging and watchable throughout, and keeps the film sound even when some of its narrative flourishes threaten to send the film heading out of control towards the absurd and nonsensical.
For the most part, Vice is quite a watchable re-telling of American history, and on its own terms, most of it works. There are great performances, and some engaging set-pieces and use of cinematic technique to explore the use of supreme Presidential power by somebody who never became President.
However, it is true there are flaws in the way of it becoming a truly great piece of cinema. Much as there is some enjoyment to be found in a darkly comic piece of movie, it just feels a bit too messy to really achieve its ambitions, and could well have done better had it just been a simpler piece of work.