Political satires are designed to polarise, so it is not surprising that reviews of Vice (2018) range from accolades to scathing denouncements. Whether you agree with its message will depend largely on your politics and your recollection of the George W. Bush presidency. While there is wide agreement that this is a superbly acted comic bio-pic, many will recoil over the way the film’s all-star ensemble lampoons the decline of a once-great democracy.
The film has a mischievous blend of genre styles that uses ridicule to ask: “how could someone become so powerful while avoiding democratic conventions and public accountability?”. That someone was Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), originally a drunkard from humble origins. But Dick had two attributes that would come to serve him well: an intelligent and ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), and his own capacity for ruthlessly getting whatever he wanted. When Lynne tells him to clean up his act or lose his marriage, he takes up an internship under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in the Nixon Administration and soon discovers a talent for manipulating powerful people while skimming favour for himself.
Vice uses a bravely inelegant narrative structure based on flashbacks, mixed media, archival footage, and on-screen text. Continuity rests on a fictional omniscient narrator who has no role in the story other than to donate a major organ to the most powerful Vice-President in American history. While the story unfolds as a comic bio-pic, the humour does not always serve the narrative. For example, the opening credits use an F-bomb to assure us “this is a true story”, setting up doubt about how seriously the film is meant to be taken. There is no shortage of light comedy, but this film is all about the questionable exercise of power at the very top. Against the satirical portrait of a shrewd manipulator who became Vice President, the film presents a child-like cartoon of the largely absent or inconsequential President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).
Aside from the entertaining insights into the Bush era and Christian Bale’s commanding performance, what is the takeaway from this film? Much is made of legal opinion known as the ‘unitary theory of executive power’. It is a controversial argument that the President has unfettered power over the institutions of government and Dick Cheney was quick to extend it to his office. Protected by this view, many presidential orders were driven by Cheney, like the Iraq War, the national response to 9/11, and the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay. So the message is both clear and relevant today: when the checks and balances of democracy are ignored, the world is a far more fragile place.
Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell