By John H. Foote
Great acting performances leave me in awe. They stroke my soul, they feed me.
Great acting has often brought me to tears just because of the purity of the accomplishment, it can be utterly breathtaking to see. From Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Jane Fonda in Klute (1971), Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1982), Eric Roberts in Star 80 (1983), Dianne Weist in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking (1995), Mystic River (2003) and Milk (2008), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007) and Lincoln (2012), Natalie Portman in Jackie (2016) through to Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea (2016), great film acting gives me goosebumps, often brings me to tears.
A complete inhabitation of a character leaves me breathless, stunned, often in tears of joy that someone has taken their level of artistry as far as it can possibly go. Robert De Niro did this as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), gaining eighty pounds after whipping himself into peak fighting condition, trained by the real LaMotta himself. But it was more, something under the flesh, something sinister, something startling in its realism as De Niro captured both the physicality of LaMotta and his very soul.
That is what Bale does here. He goes as far
While directing for the stage I witnessed some stunning performances from my brother Steve Foote, Sherri Todd (who became my wife), Hailey Vogel, Michael Serres, Nora Van Camp, Bruce Williamson, and Carolyn Goff. Watching them grow, risk as actors with each performance fed my creative soul.
As a critic, I have always seen performance first when watching a film, connecting to its humanity. Most people do, but I think my background as a director trained to be an actor serves me enormously.,
Add Christian Bale to the list of greatest film performances for his uncanny, almost predatory and spooky performance as Dick Cheney, Vice President, henchman to President George W. Bush. Bale is astonishing as Cheney, his performance going far beyond the makeup, instead, going deep into his soul, or the semblance of a soul Cheney might have had. The clipped, direct speech is perfect, the darting eyes, finally boring into whoever he is speaking with like a laser, his Cheney is a malevolent presence throughout this biting, fascinating film. Called a ghost for the manner he moves behind the scenes,
With this astounding performance, Bale becomes a
Should we be surprised? No, Bale has demonstrated a chameleon-like quality since becoming a major actor. He gains and sheds weight with apparent ease, though we know there is nothing easy about it. His English accent is easily disguised, and through his last twenty years, he has become the very best of his generation.
From his gleeful, pop culture obsessed maniac in American Psycho (2000), his bizarre loner in The Machinist (2004), Batman/ Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-08-12), his Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter (2010), his Hustler in American Hustle (2013), his barefoot money genius in The Big Short (2015), right through to his superb cowboy in Hostiles (2017) for which he deserved another Oscar nomination, Bale has stunned both audiences and critics with his endless range.
Last year a heavily made up Gary Oldman won the Oscar for Best Actor in Darkest Hour, which also won an Oscar for make up. As many are aware, I was not a believer in Oldman as Churchill because I felt the make up did so much of the work for him. Never did I once feel I was watching Churchill, while here never did I think I was watching an actor but rather Cheney himself. I recall seeing Raging Bull (1980) for the first time with my friend Kevin McDonald of The Kids in the Hall. We left that cinema, altered in some way, forever galvanized by what De Niro had accomplished on screen as Jake LaMotta. Bale achieves the same thing here, going beyond mere acting into inhabiting the man in every way while Oldman “acted” the role of Churchill under layers of make up. He never BECAME the man as Bale does here. For me, Oldman failed as an actor because we do not see into his soul.
Not here, as we are given glimpses into Cheney’s past, we see Bale as Cheney as a young man, aging into the Vice President. We see, though we may cringe the warped soul of Dick Cheney.
The scenes with Bale and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush crackle with an electricity that must have been remarkable to watch. Rockwell plays Bush as a good ol’ boy, who plays perfectly into Cheney’s satanic plan, which is to be President without actually being President. There are those who write history who believe Cheney made greater decisions than Bush during their eight years in office. It was Cheney who told Bush with absolute confidence that Saddam Hussein was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), sending Bush into fighting mode, invading Iraq, as much for the WMD’s as for harbouring terrorists responsible for 9/11.
Beginning with his days as a drunken drop out of Yale, he straightens his life around, working with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), learning the inner workings of power working close with Nixon and then as Ford’s Chief Of Staff. He rises through the halls of power, winning a seat in Congress, always watching, always learning. Felled by heart attacks, and eventually a heart transplant, nothing seems to stop him.
Watch Cheney during the BBQ in Texas when Bush asks him to be his Vice President, his running mate. It is absolute perfection. Notice how Cheney gentle manipulates Bush to his way of thinking, guides Bush to releas some of the power he will hold to Cheney, who clearly wishes to have it. Cheney says little in the scene, but his eyes see through Bush, moving like a cobra, sizing up his quarry. We have two of the greatest actors working at the very top of their game, brilliantly feeding off one another, bringing the words on the page to vivid life. Finding the truth.
The film is tautly directed by Adam McKay as a nasty satire, too intense to be labeled a black comedy, yet too frightening to be anything else because the Bush Presidency was blackly comic was it not? McKay holds nothing back, creating one of the most astute, crackling good political films in film history. Walking the halls of extreme power has its consequences, as we are shown in the impact his job has on the Vice President. The film moves with brisk energy, almost like a Scorsese film, pouring tons of government information at us, but presented in a way we understand. The sheer volume of knowledge to be in politics must put a drain on a person. Interesting that during the eight years they were in office, it was Cheney who suffered most with ill-health, heart attacks, and his body breaking down.
Beyond Bale being a revelation, I just cannot say enough about his stunning performance, and Rockwell as George W. Bush astonishing in a small role (too small), Amy Adams is a fire-breathing wife to Cheney, a razor sharp woman who understands exactly what such power is and means. She is the sounding board to her husband, never think she is the brains behind him, oh no, he was smart enough on his own, but she was a tireless champion to him. I imagine their pillow talk was about world power and how to secure more for America. As he rises, so does she, just as adept at the power game as he, in ways more so.
Steve Carrell, Tyler Perry, and Allison Pill do strong work in supporting roles, but it is the trio of Bale, Adams,
Vice is darkly brilliant, excellent on each level, it’s only flaw being there is not enough Rockwell as George W. Bush, a very minor quibble. Easily among the best films of the year, and among the finest American films of the last forty years. The Academy Awards are going to be interesting,
Pay attention, the film seems to end after just forty-five minutes but it does not, really it is just beginning.
Though many have criticized Cheney for his shadowy actions during his time as a Vice President, in many ways we were fortunate to have him. Someone behind the throne had to make decisions and clearly Bush lacked the experience. What is endearing to this difficult man is his absolute love and loyalty to his family, which given many of his actions makes him a contradiction.
Vice is a dizzying knockout punch at years end, it might be the years best film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.