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Critics are divided over Dick Cheney biopic ‘Vice’ starring Christian Bale

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When it comes to Adam McKay’s VICE, critics are on very different sides of the (theater) aisle. 

Despite early and persistent Oscar buzz (the film scored six Golden Globe noms), the Dick Cheney biopic has received a fairly mixed first wave of critical reception. While some laud the film as cleverly biting, others have denounced it as a clumsy display of political hatred.

Starring Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, and Amy Adams, VICE uses a nonlinear structure to walk audiences through the political career of “the most powerful vice president” in modern American history. Touching on Cheney’s rise to national politics and yes, his involvement in the Iraq War, VICE paints a controversial portrait of an even more controversial figure.

Before putting your confidence in VICE on Dec. 25, check out critics’ takes below. 

Christian Bale and the rest of the cast 100% commit

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair:

In a vacuum, Bale’s performance would be a thrilling bit of imitation, a dark parlor trick that’s all the more exciting because no one else is doing it. But in Vice, Bale’s uncanny apery is leaned on too heavily, as if half the film’s work is done because it nails the Cheney impression. Successfully telling Cheney’s story—particularly how he was uniquely suited to leveraging loopholes in executive power to reorder U.S. security policy toward disaster—requires more legwork than merely a good impersonation. McKay set a difficult, exacting task before his movie, and yet he keeps it too hepped up on pieces of flair to really knuckle down and focus.

Matt Goldberg, Collider:

The performances are sublime and precise, but they’re in service to a story where they’re figures in a much larger canvas. Bale is uncanny as Cheney, completely slipping into a taciturn figure and making you forget there’s even an actor there. But it’s not in service of understanding Cheney as much as it’s trying to paint a picture of what Cheney was involved in. We need to believe in Cheney’s world, grotesque and absurd as it may be, and these performances are essential grounding for the disturbing world McKay shows us.

Like McKay’s previous work, VICE genre hops with voracious rapidity

William Bibiani, IGN

The didactic quality of McKay’s Oscar-winning The Big Short, which frequently broke the fourth wall to explain complicated economic theories (as entertainingly as possible) returns in Vice. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, and it’s a political science lecture about the dangers of executive privilege. 

Stephanie Zacharek, TIME:

The tone of Vice is jauntily Michael Moore-ish, although McKay doesn’t even seem as angry as Moore tends to be. He frequently interrupts the story with found footage or bold images. Some is zany (a blood-red heart floating in black space), some is jarring (abstract but vivid depictions of torture), but almost none of it works. McKay’s style here is the equivalent of a knowing cackle; the whole enterprise, elaborate as it is, comes off as lacking in passion. The Big Short had an exhilarating kick, but it also left you feeling queasy over the destructive misdeeds you’d just witnessed. Vice just leaves you feeling sapped, advertising its cleverness without actually being clever.

VICE‘s portrait of Cheney is either multilayered and full of nuance…

A.O. Scott, The New York Times

It will break no news and spoil nobody’s fun to note that McKay is not a fan of his protagonist. His argument is essentially that much of what critics of the current president fear most — the erosion of democratic norms; the manufacture of “alternative facts”; the rise of an authoritarian executive branch — already came to pass when George W. Bush was in office. But “Vice” offers more than Yuletide rage-bait for liberal moviegoers, who already have plenty to be mad about. Revulsion and admiration lie as close together as the red and white stripes on the American flag, and if this is in some respects a real-life monster movie, it’s one that takes a lively and at times surprisingly sympathetic interest in its chosen demon.

… or “a two-hour hate-fest”

Rafer Guzmán, Newsday

“Vice” is not an attempt to explain or understand Dick Cheney at all. It’s not really a life story, but a bitter reminder that Cheney helped sell Americans a war in Iraq using false information. A fair point — but all this movie wants to do is punish him for it. With Christian Bale in a remarkable transformation as the monochrome Cheney (the actor gained 45 pounds for the role), “Vice” is the perfect film for anyone who felt that “W.,” Oliver Stone’s sympathetic biography of the 43rd president (with Richard Dreyfuss as a much more human Cheney) lacked the proper level of hatred.

More fun than functional, VICE never really captures its subject

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

The answer to that question — if it exists at all — isn’t really anywhere to be found in Adam McKay’s slick, wildly meta, and occasionally too-clever portrait of the most influential and easily least understood figure to ever hold the nation’s second-highest post. Instead, the movie offers a sort of speculative shadow biography of an obscure also-ran who somehow rose from sodden mediocrity (Cheney flunked out of Yale, where he mostly seemed to major in alcohol) to the highest halls of executive power — and did it all, a title card intones, “like a ghost.”

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