How does the funny director of Anchorman end up making a film about one of the most power-hungry figures in American politics? Adam McKay is the writer and director of Vice, which stars Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, the Vice President to George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009.
In fact, looking back at McKay’s films — which include Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and The Big Short — there’s a thread connecting all his efforts. The Big Short is the obvious lead-in to Vice, as it broke down a very real economic event. But McKay’s political interest has always been evident. His movies all focus on huge personalities caught up in very real issues, even if the action is exaggerated to the point of absurdity.
Here’s how the director of Anchorman grew into the auteur behind Vice.
Seasoned By SNL
McKay’s earliest major job primed him to make savagely funny takes on real life. McKay wrote for Saturday Night Live from 1995 to 2001. For the last two years he was the show’s head writer. SNL’s politically-tinged comedy is the obvious starting point for the writer/director who would ultimately turn his eye to one of our most notorious vice presidents.
After seasoning his comic voice at SNL, McKay created Anchorman with former SNL cast member Will Ferrell. That began a partnership that continued through Talladega Nights, the creation of internet portal Funny or Die, and many other projects.
Anchorman is actually very relevant to Vice. The movie didn’t just lampoon Farrell’s clueless character Ron Burgundy; it looked at the creation of media we’ve all relied upon, and tore apart the sexism and other limitations of the TV news industry. As weird as the characters are, their story is connected to and comments on reality.
Honing His Voice
Another film in the middle of McKay’s career marked a transition into a filmmaker who deals with real-world stories without the veneer of fiction. While McKay did not direct The Campaign, he produced the film and concocted the story. It’s an over-the top election satire about a Congressional seat race in North Carolina. On one side is the overconfident Democratic incumbent played by Will Ferrell. On the other is a puppet, played by Zach Galifianakis, set to run as a Republican by corrupt business interests.
Satire in The Campaign edges closer to reality than the cartoonish tone of McKay’s previous stuff. It’s about personal failures and business ambitions and how they affect politics and the public. So adapting Michael Lewis’s best-selling book The Big Short was a natural step. The Big Short explored the roots of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which helped create the 2008 recession. It also profiled people caught up in systems they couldn’t understand or change.
The material is challenging and not obvious comedy material. Part of the reason the mortgage crisis happened was that people didn’t understand how the housing market worked. So McKay had a massive challenge. He had to explain all that stuff while also making an entertaining movie. He succeeded by keeping things simple, and employing some of the cartoonish flair seen in his previous films. When The Big Short characters explain concepts directly to the audience, it’s not a far cry from the tone of Anchorman.
“We Can Make This Work”
The Big Short featured a great performance from Christian Bale. There he was a hedge fund manager who realizes the housing market is bound to fail. Bale’s relationship with McKay is clearly good enough that he agreed to pack on extra pounds to play Dick Cheney in Vice. Unlike The Big Short characters, Cheney realizes he might be able to change the system to benefit himself. As he says in the film’s trailer, “I think we can make this work.”
So Vice unpacks Cheney’s life; specifically his years as Vice President to George W. Bush, played by Sam Rockwell. Cheney had already worked for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush. In 2000 he was the CEO of energy management company Halliburton. Other McKay characters aspire to power, or think they have it. Cheney might be his first character to really grab power. That’s a new step, and Vice looks like it will be a great new elevation of McKay’s abilities as a director.
Vice opens on December 25.