VICE 2018 movie review Christian Bale as Dick Cheney

America has sold a unique brand of exceptionalism.

Some say no modern nation surpasses its military, economic, scientific and cultural prowess. Prominent Americans revere their country as an “empire of liberty”, a “shining city on a hill”, the “last best hope on Earth,” and the “leader of the free world”.

These enduring paeans are an apparent result of America’s political philosophy. By privileging individual freedom for every citizen, the American finds themselves in a unique position all of the time: whenever they choose to do something, they exercise a political right.

This choice has come to be sacred. Vice is about the lengths a self-proclaimed patriot will go to protect it.

When director Adam McKay’s film The Big Short earned him an Oscar for screenwriting, audiences discovered the former SNL comic’s hidden skill – turning concepts that usually made people feel bored or stupid, engaging and funny.

It’s our luck that after the tenth anniversary of 2008 financial crisis, and one month after George H. W. Bush’s funeral, his next target of irreverence would be the shadowy figure of Dick Cheney.

Far from a hagiography, Vice – carried seamlessly by an unrecognisable lead in Christian Bale and a cuttingly ambitious Amy Adams as his wife Lynne – seems an unambiguous condemnation of the Bush-Cheney administration, an ancestor of today’s American right.

This is no typical biopic.

There are no sweeping landscapes and sombre confessionals in red-curtained studios, nor any attempt to feign journalistic objectivity. No off-screen interviewer neatly ties the narrative together and the fourth wall is broken in the first ten minutes.

Absurdity, characters addressing the viewer directly, and thick visual metaphors give Viceits unique personality (wait till you see the scene with the heart). McKay wants you to know he is speaking directly to you. This isn’t a squared off paragraph confined to history books. It is what shaped our present.

Make no mistake: just because it’s opinionated doesn’t mean it isn’t well researched. McKay told the New York Times that the movie encompassed “five decades of Cheney’s life, 200 locations and more than 150 speaking parts”. According to him, a more measured, less confrontational tone wouldn’t have suited the OTT political circus we live in now. “Why be subtle anymore?”

While a conservative backlash is to be expected, this Cheney is no bloodless monster. He’s human. An idealist. His tender love for his daughters and unquestioning devotion to his wife are the same qualities that bond him to the bawdy Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), and the ranks of a post-Watergate GOP.

He’s a creature of a slower, sweeter time: honed by long scenes of fly-fishing and the vast plains of Wyoming. McKay contrasts this with the energetic, M&M crunching Bush, played by a chameleon-like Sam Rockwell.

Cheney watches and waits. And watches and waits. He leaves no trace. And he is in it for the long haul.

At its core, Vice is a story about democracy. It is a warning that the halls of power rarely grant wishes without demanding a sacrifice, and too often this sacrifice begins with stripping the humanity of the powerless. It is about the special accomplishment of the individual who advances into public life when retreating into privacy is the easiest and most natural thing to do.

It is an admission that envy, chronic discontent and loneliness are intrinsic to democracy, but that its expansive collectivism are how to combat it. It’s all of this, and a demand to keep paying attention.

In his letters, Alexis de Tocqueville speaks of his ambition “to point out if possible to men what to do to escape tyranny and debasement in becoming democratic.”

Philosopher Alexandre Lefebvre offers the following:

“He [Tocqueville] seems to say that tyranny and debasement are part and parcel of becoming democratic. But… [it] works the other way around as well: that in becoming democratic – that is, in becoming properly democratic, democratic in the right way – we can hope to escape the new kinds of tyranny and debasement that democracy brings about…

For as Tocqueville exhorts himself in an unpublished note, we must “use Democracy to moderate Democracy. It is the only path open to salvation to us.”

McKay, and Cheney, would agree.

Vice is released in movie theatres 26 December 2018.