Vice walks, talks and eats like an entertaining documentary, but it’s definitely not one. To be fair, it doesn’t claim to be, but at times it feels like it wants you to trust it as if it were one. The creative (and slightly deceptive) manipulation of the documentary form makes separating fact from opinion the constant work of any fair-minded viewer. By the time the film nears its tired end, it struggles to place any exclamation point on its arresting historical data. Similar to The Big Short, Vice weaves threads of fictional comedy into a mostly historical piece with the hope that the medicine of reality can be delivered with a few laughs and keep the people watching. Unlike The Big Short, most of the humor is so biased it works to undermine the credibility of its history. Truth about governmental corruption should be what the audience walks away with, but the film distracts from the facts with its bloated sense of bias and sad humor.
What the film does provide is a fantastic stage upon which Christian Bale masters the movements and mannerisms of one of America’s most powerful and corrupt VPs. At times, the acting is so well done that it’s difficult to tell if you’re looking at actual footage or recreated moments. Bale handles the personhood of Cheney with care and whisks us into the past without a second thought. Because Cheney was a VP of few words, Bale had to settle into subtle but powerful embodiment. There’s a scene when he’s sitting in the situation room on 9/11 with his hands folded, shoulders hunched, and all Bale does is tilt his head, but you know exactly what Cheney is thinking: this is an opportunity to take power.
He is supported by a charismatic Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who ages beautifully in the film. Carell is smoothly strategic as his character transitions from comic relief, to one of the most heartbroken cronies by Cheney’s side. Amy Adams as Cheney’s loyal wife Lynne is also a strong support as the strong-willed confidant who props up Cheney with grace and grit throughout the film. Adams has a way of making Lynne endearing, while simultaneously thirsty for power. No matter your politics, their union is a strong force in the film and can’t go unnoticed.
The portrayal of President George W. Bush, however, is a cheap shot and used primarily to bring comedic relief. The truth of Mr. Bush’s reliance on Cheney could have been illustrated without making the former President into a clown. The film has no shame when inserting little “skits” of Mr. Bush throughout the story, but unfortunately the systematically undercuts its authority (historically or morally) just to get a few laughs.
The themes of loyalty and power run strong throughout the movie, creating a much needed illustration of how corruption develops over time—even in the lives of seemingly “good” people. If the audience can get past the sloppiness of the filmmakers’ bias, the overwhelming abuse of power should leave us shaken. Unfortunately, the risk the filmmakers took by painting all Republicans in the film as either manipulative or goofy lessens the impact of the movie, even if its reach might have been broadened because of it. Any person who genuinely needs this history lesson might be so offended that the intended impact misses the mark.
What is missed is the opportunity to deliver genuinely tragic information (the amount of lives lost during the invasion of Iraq) in a responsible manner. By weaving political bias into a historical story, the filmmakers show too much of their hand. The information is important and the story should be told, but it deserved the hard work and effort of a real documentary. The result is what feels like another slanted news source, and it further muddies the water of information that plagues America.