In 2015, Adam McKay went from being the guy who directed Will Ferrell movies to one of the most stylistically innovative filmmakers in Hollywood.
Gigs overseeing Anchorman, Talladega Nights and The Other Guys, plus writing credits on films including Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Ant-Man, somehow gave way to The Big Short, a dizzying blockbuster that took the esoteric world of pre-crash finance and turned it into a Scorsese-esque work of docudrama.
It slithered like an eel, surprising at every turn – when tasked with explaining the complex world of mortgage-backed securities, McKay famously cut to Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath and let her do the talking.
For his latest project he takes a subject even more opaque: former vice-president Dick Cheney. Christian Bale once again stars, this time gaining 40 pounds to play the infamous “Darth Vader” of the White House.
The opening titles introduce the film as a true story, but qualifies this with “we tried our fucking best”. One of the central conceits is how Cheney was utterly inscrutable, even unknowable. It asks how this reformed drunk came from nowhere to become the most powerful vice-president in history. McKay argues that Cheney in effect wrested power from the dim-witted George Bush Jr, transforming the once ceremonial position into one with a portfolio that included energy and foreign policy.
He paints Cheney as a man with no scruples, no moral compass, but an ability to make even the most outlandish ideas seem logical. To demonstrate this, McKay imagines a conversation with Bush in which Cheney quietly suggests “we all put wigs on our penises, walk out into the Presidential Garden and jerk each other off”, which the President enthusiastically agrees to.
Bale is on imperious form, capturing the dead-eyed malevolence of his character, wheezing and gasping his way through the film, Cheney’s crumbling body kept shuffling along, zombie-like, through sheer force of will. He’s supported by an all-star ensemble, including Steve Carell as a brilliantly amoral Donald Rumsfeld, Amy Adams as Cheney’s hawkish wife and Sam Rockwell as an uncannily plausible Dubya.
As in The Big Short, documentary footage is cut into the action, fleshing out the terrible, tumultuous time in world politics that followed the ill-fated second Gulf war. The way McKay spins a kind of unified theory of What Went Wrong brings to mind Adam Curtis’ hypnotic political documentary HyperNormalisation, asserting that a handful of bad men led to the mess in which we presently find ourselves.
Covering everything from political polling to extraordinary rendition, Vice is a wild ride through modern politics, with Cheney himself a black hole at the heart of this universe, suffocating and destroying everything in his path. It’s 2019’s first bona fide classic: compulsive, thrilling and terrifying.