national Arts Festival Banner

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


(Christian Bale as Richard B Cheney)

Christian Bale offers a scarily lifelike impression of Dick Cheney, but can we trust this film’s historical veracity? (Review by Patrick Compton - 7/10

I’m not a great fan of movies that claim to be “inspired by” or “based upon” true life events. And it’s mainly because while these films include the facts when convenient, they also make it up when it suits them.

Take the London tube scene in Darkest Hour when Winston Churchill, under pressure from powerful forces within the Conservative Party to seek peace terms with Hitler, finds himself in a train carriage with a bunch of ordinary Londoners who support his bulldog stand to the hilt. This scene, we are led to believe, helped Churchill to rout his political enemies and fearlessly face up to the Nazi threat in 1940.

That scene never happened. Churchill, an aristocrat to his fingertips, never travelled on the underground, much less on a London bus. It was a scene solely included for its “dramatic” value. For me, it devalued what was otherwise a fine film.

Fictional flourishes are fine when fidelity to history is not a priority but when we have a biopic that claims to capture an important political period, directors have to be more trustworthy.

Writer-director Adam McKay impressed many with his previous film, The Big Short, which entertainingly dramatised the financial meltdown of 2008. Here he attempts a biopic of George “Dubya” Bush’s vice-president, Richard B Cheney, who, we are told to believe, was the real power behind Bush’s throne after 9/11.

It was Cheney – described as the most powerful vice-president in American history in what had always been a dead-end job – who effectively motivated the invasion of Iraq under false pretences, intensified homeland security to a scary degree, sanctioned torture (water-boarding) and pushed for the exclusive executive power of the President with no constitutional checks and balances to constrain him. All this while the lightweight Bush goes along for the ride.

The result is entertaining, without question, as well as frightening, particularly now that the United States genuinely seems to have a President who believes he can do whatever he wants .But when a film claims to express a fidelity to the facts, it surely has a responsibility to tell the story as honestly as possible. It’s not always the case, it seems to me, that McKay has done that here. Is the resulting movie a black comedy, a dark fantasy or a quasi-factual assessment? It’s not easy to tell.

What is beyond doubt is Bale’s wonderfully vivid performance as the black spider who prompts the president to do his darkest bidding. The English actor, in arguably his most detailed and persuasive performance, seems to capture the dark soul of an autocrat intoxicated by an intense will to power.

The plot charts Cheney’s progress from being a boozy lost boy to a conniving politician/businessman who makes his way through various administrations to the top of Washington’s cynical political manure heap. His wife, splendidly played by a blonde bewigged Amy Adams, is a veritable Lady Macbeth, always prodding him forward.

Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld as a goof, Sam Rockwell is a lame-brained Bush while in one delirious fantasy sequence Sam Molina plays a waiter who offers Cheney and his cohorts a menu of lip-smacking power dishes straight out of a Mephistophelian universe.

Not all of McKay’s flourishes are designed to dismantle Cheney and the American far right. It’s good to see, for example, his love for his family, particularly his gay daughter who obviously presents him with certain political problems with his troglodyte “base”. And there’s a lovely moment when the credits come up less than halfway through the movie before the film shifts gear once again.

Vice is an enjoyable film, with Bale playing a man who cares not a jot what people think of him and his decisions. In this context, his powerful final monologue gives us all pause for thought. Having said that, this is not a movie that is easy to trust.

Vice has been showing in Durban since February 8, 2019. – Patrick Compton