The secret to a good biopic is a mystery writers and directors have relentlessly tried to crack since the beginning of film.
Today we seem to have concluded that you either take three hours to cram in as much of the central character’s full story, or you siphon off a small portion of their life in which they did that thing which makes them significant today, and try to tell that story really well.
No one’s got it quite right and Steve Jobs is a great figure to run this analysis on.
2013 saw an Ashton Kutcher-led biopic on him that clearly represents the limits and annoying cliches of the genre. It tries to tell the story of most of his life up to the first iPod. That’s thirty years worth of story crammed into two hours. It tries to do too much and ends up having more of a focus on recreating iconic visual moments, leaving the story mostly on the floor.
Aaron Sorkin’s 2015 film, Steve Jobs, takes an entirely different approach. Confined to three acts centered around three product launches that were significant turning points in Jobs’ career, and confined within the walls of those venues, it consists mostly of Sorkinesque walking and talking.
Do either of these biopics succeed in any significant way? Sorkin’s a little more than Kutcher’s. But in both telling’s of this story, it’s painfully obvious while watching that they’re two vastly different approaches struggling with the same problem few have cracked.
In the age of Netflix and HBO, platforms that are committed to spending lavishly on long, slow, well-written and produced bio-series, the biopic seems outdated and hopelessly handicapped.
Vice, the latest by director Adam McKay, who brought us 2015’s The Big Short, tries to innovate around this dilemma in its telling of the story of Dick Cheney, a political figure who’s had a big life (that against all odds is still going). But the result is a jumpy, unfocused film that merely skims through the significant moments of a person the film claims is one of the most consequential figures to ever grace the halls of the White House.
Where a film like The Big Short, or a biopic about a fellow political figure, Darkest Hour, succeeds in comparison is that they focus the narrative around an event that impacted the audience, connecting us to the narrative and thus the central characters. Through that lense we’re able to discover those figures as we understand why they’re significant to us, and the film becomes more of a peek behind the curtain as to what they were like behind the scenes, thus demonstrating their character.
The closest thing Vice has to an event connecting us to the narrative is 9/11. And, even then, it doesn’t feel like a major part of the narrative, and is certainly not used as a gravity point to focus the telling of the story.
The writers and director freely and provocatively reveal at the opening of the film that there’s so little they could find and confirm around Cheney’s actions and behaviour, being one of the most secretive figures in political history. “But we did our fucking best,” ends the disclaimer.
But with little to connect with in the story and in its central character, we get hints of his mostly muted personality, but not a lot of insight. And the filmmakers seem to know they’re not offering a lot because they continually admit they have no way of knowing what Cheney was thinking at this moment or that.
Nonetheless, Christian Bale continues his reputation as a chameleon, seamlessly disappearing into the role of Cheney. As usual, he drastically altered his weight for the role. Throughout the film he goes from chubby to obese. But, aside from a monologue to camera at the end, the role is an exercise in restraint. Don’t expect to see any overreacted monologues, as this character is no Churchill.
Amy Adams lays down a strong performance as Lynne Cheney, whose ambition for Dick, and growing disgust towards the “liberal elite” throughout the film are deliciously chilling to watch.
Steve Carell is serviceable as Donald Rumsfeld, although at times a lot of his laughter and mannerisms felt too similar to those of Brick Tamland, his character in Anchorman, also directed by McKay. But that may say more about Rumsfeld rather than Carell.
And Sam Rockwell delivers the essence of George W. Bush exceptionally well.
Tracking Dick Cheney’s life from before his start in Washington in the 1970s all the way to the Republicans’ defeat in 2008 is a hard task. And being a government figure, it’s clear Cheney had a hand in an infinitely scrollable list of actions that have strongly impacted everything from our attitude to global warming, gay marriage and may have quite possibly been the genesis of ISIS.
But the more stories you try to tell the harder it is for the audience to focus and connect. And while McKay has tried to use some of the jumpy storytelling devices that worked well in The Big Short, this time it made the audience unsure of where to set their feet on the ground.