Adam McKay’s flamethrowing take on the rise and rise of Dick Cheney, played by a truly unrecognizable Christian Bale, is bound to be polarizing. In Vice, the writer-director is tossing grenades every which way — it’s a movie that’s ferociously funny one minute, bleakly sorrowful the next. The see-sawing is sure to piss off left-wingers who know Cheney’s a prick and want to see the movie bury his ass. The far right will bristle because McKay shows us that the America that made the power-mad Dick also helped produce the enraged Cheeto currently occupying the Oval Office. So who the hell is Vice for? At times, the film itself seems unsure. But McKay, who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his 2015 comic broadside against Wall Street, The Big Short, hits pay dirt whenever he drops us into the place where the political and the personal collide. That’s the danger zone where no joke is launched without a sting in its tail.
Even buried in layers of latex, sporting 45 extra pounds and a relentless monotone, Bale finds the conflicted essence of Cheney over four decades of turbulent history. There’s the Wyoming hothead who got kicked out of Yale. There’s the man who got whipped into shape by his firebrand wife, Lynne (a spectacular Amy Adams), who dragged him out of jail twice and told him that she had no plans to marry “a filthy hobo.” There’s the chastened Cheney who rose through the ranks as chief of staff for Gerald Ford, secretary of defense for George H.W. Bush and CEO of the Halliburton oil corporation. And then there’s the quiet, observant man who became the most powerful vice president in modern American history courtesy of George W. Bush, channeled to perfection by Sam Rockwell. McKay sees Lynne as the power behind the throne, a born leader who might have surpassed her husband’s success in an era more conducive to women in politics. Instead it would be Dick, known as “the ghost” thanks to his stealth wresting of power, who would leave his impact on history.
How much of this stuff is true? In a refreshing pre-credits disclaimer on screen, the filmmakers admit that though the Cheneys are notoriously secretive, “we did our fucking best.” It’s that irresistible irreverence that lifts Vice above the herd of most biopics. McKay happily screws with structure by jumping back and forth in time. He sends in a narrator (Jesse Plemmons) with a surprise connection to Cheney. He adds a fake ending midway through the film and has the Cheneys speak in iambic pentameter to suggest Shakespearean parallels, as if they were Lord Macbeth and his Lady. At one point, Alfred Molina plays a waiter offering Cheney and his nest of right-wing vipers — Steve Carell is a marvel of mirth and menace as Donald Rumsfeld — a menu of choices with which to exploit their clueless constituents.
Comic distance proves necessary in a film that turns deadly serious. The opportunist in Cheney used 9/11 to pump up fears of global terrorism; to create his own shadow government as Bush’s puppetmaster; to raise the specter of weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq; to foster advanced interrogation tactics and warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens; and to wage a useless war that resulted in the deaths of thousands. In a painful scene, Team Cheney persuades Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) to lie to Congress about the existence of WMDs.
Hardly the stuff of comedy. Bale, too good an actor to play a cardboard villain, has stated his need to “embrace Cheney with sincerity.” We are shown the veep as a loyal husband and father to his daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe). But when the latter runs for the Senate, she takes a winning stand against gay marriage that enrages her lesbian sister. In the film, we see Dick nod in approval, like Don Corleone ordering a hit, when Liz asks permission to turn on Mary. It’s a chilling scene, one among many.
Why do McKay and Bale allow Cheney to show traces of humanity? From what’s onscreen, it’s to measure what gets lost when empathy surrenders to expediency and morality capitulates to power. Near the end, the character breaks the fourth wall: “You chose me,” he says defiantly to us. “I did what you asked.” How’s that for an indictment that crosses party lines — and a film that indicts the past in the name of our own volatile, scarily uncertain now?