“Vice” jolts its audience from a straightforward White House cabinet meeting into an animated game board showing the powerful players of Washington, D.C.
Along with rolling dice, officials in the George W. Bush administration appear as pop-up players on the board – this is one of various surreal digressions in the film’s comedy-drama narrative.
The biopic starring Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney has garnered eight Oscar nominations. Alumnus and producer Kevin Messick said the film uses comedy to enhance his profound research to tell Cheney’s story over several decades, keeping audiences entertained and informed at the same time.
“In making the film about a somewhat boring bureaucrat, who had such a massive impact on the country and our history, it is easy to write it off as uninteresting,” Messick said. “There’s great difficulty in cracking an entertaining and educational movie.”
Before the inclusion of comedic segments, Messick said examining Cheney’s personal and political life was challenging. Director and writer Adam McKay’s script was not guided by one established book or narrative source. Instead, to uncover his backstory and impact in the government, the film’s researchers dug through archives and personally interviewed sources, including officials from various presidential administrations and those who knew Cheney from his early days in Casper, Wyoming. The film’s authentic construction relied heavily on original reporting, attorneys vetting the script and makeup artists recreating the physical appearances of public figures; this included the six months necessary to perfect Bale’s transformation into Cheney, Messick said.
From there, McKay’s script worked to keep audiences engaged with the heavy subject matter. The mock end credits scene, for instance, actually takes place in the middle of the film before George W. Bush reaches out to Cheney about becoming vice president. McKay said the scene comedically creates an imagined future, utilizing rolling text that describes Cheney’s alternate and peaceful life outside of government.
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“(The scene) is certainly showing the audience that if … Cheney had retired successfully from a life in government and with Haliburton, things would’ve gone differently. (McKay) came up with: ‘What if the story ended there?’” Messick said. “The fake ending underlined that idea in a such clever and engaging way.”
Some of the film’s humor also emerged from the inherently absurd nature of Cheney’s life, said Jason George, a fellow alumnus and “Vice” co-producer. George said Cheney went from being a criminal youth to someone with great power. The improbable story of his rise was only somewhat amplified by the film’s humorous direction, as reporting on Cheney’s background brought out surprising stories, George said.
“In a way, I felt like I was a miner, going out and finding these rough stones. And then (McKay) would turn them into jewels, in ways that I never expected,” George said.
When connecting his own research to the film’s comedic moments, George said those who knew Cheney vouched for his sarcastic and funny asides. The personal anecdotes led to amusing scenes, including one where Cheney and his wife, Lynne, suddenly begin to speak in an absurd, Shakespearean iambic pentameter, George said.
“With Dick Cheney, you’re talking about someone who has had an incredibly rich life – from being in Congress, to being secretary of defense, to being vice president, to being in the House of Representatives for a long time,” George said. “It was a very fun experience looking through these 70, 80 years of Dick Cheney’s life to help McKay find the story he wanted to tell.”
As for balancing “Vice’s” tonal shifts, editor Hank Corwin said he developed a shorthand language with McKay after working together on “The Big Short,” which he incorporated into the Cheney biopic. Corwin said he tried to reveal Cheney’s depth by combining human moments with the rest of the political narrative, such as a sequence featuring military scenes, Colin Powell’s controversial speech to the United Nations and Cheney as a grandfather, laughing with his family while discussing American Idol.
Corwin said his editing also allowed metaphors about Cheney’s character to seep into the historical narrative. For example, the film occasionally cuts to footage of Cheney fly-fishing, or teaching his daughters how to bait fish. McKay envisioned this as an important metaphor early on, representing Cheney’s knack for fly-fishing as symbolic of his patience and tenacity. Corwin said he included those shots to create an experience of emotional realism for viewers.
Coming from a background of both reporting and screenwriting, George said researching and conveying Cheney’s story in “Vice” was a learning experience, as his perception of Cheney as a public figure was different prior to the film. He said the film’s comedic moments and in-depth investigation of Cheney’s life helped illuminate what audiences might not know about Cheney or American history.
“I think that was what was so interesting about this story is (that) the protagonist is not the obvious protagonist of a film. … (McKay) saw in this character someone who was in the shadows,” George said. “He decided to shine that flashlight and say, ‘What is this guy doing, what has he done and how has that changed the world we live in today?’”