Vice—Somebody thought that the feel-good movie we’d all be eager to rush out and see this Christmas was a sprawling chronicle of imperialism, war, torture, greed and ruthless political calculation. Adam McKay’s biopic of Vice President Dick Cheney doesn’t just make the assertion, by now familiar, that he was mostly the de facto president behind the figurehead of George W. Bush; it also gives him a quiet, behind-the-scenes hand in just about every piece of both covert and overt international bullying, environmental recklessness and military-industrial power-mongering since the Nixon Administration.
The writer-director is Adam McKay, who with his 2015 The Big Short (another holiday release!) made the subprime mortgage crash a laugh-riot, and, for many of us, a somewhat more comprehensible one as well. He uses the same sketch comedy pacing and gags and other such Brechtian techniques in Vice, to generate a sense of caustic dark farce around his protagonist’s unobtrusive resistible rise.
McKay’s frenetic style is offset by the brooding power of Christian Bale’s star turn. I had some of the same reaction to Bale here that I had to former child actor Leonardo DiCaprio in 2011’s J. Edgar; it’s strange to think that the little kid from Empire of the Sun and Branagh’s Henry V is old enough to plausibly play Dick Cheney. Vibrant as a kid, Bale has usually been off-putting to me in his adult career, but he seems to do well in unlikable roles. His Cheney is an impressive display of technical acting chops: He gets to show us the man from a hell-raising young drunk in ’60s-era Wyoming through to the bald, growling figure we remember from the W. years, a little like David Huddleston in The Big Lebowski (without the lovability).
He’s largely unreadable as a character, of course, but the point of the movie is that he built his career on being unreadable, even unnoticeable; the Man Behind the Curtain to whom we were supposed to pay no attention. When Cheney finally gets his hands on the White House toward the end of the picture, McKay shoots him from low angles, to the accompaniment of Nicholas Britell’s brooding music, almost like a Star Wars villain.
The supporting cast is full of amusing caricatures, from Sam Rockwell as W. Bush to Tyler Perry as Colin Powell to Steve Carell’s malignant, cackling Donald Rumsfeld. Amy Adams finds yet another variation on her wholesome persona as a tough, smart, yet spookily true-believing Lynne Cheney, and Jessie Plemons adds some much-needed sweetness as the everyman narrator.
Vice isn’t the home run that The Big Short was. McKay’s attempt at a comprehensive indictment makes it bog down a bit in the second half. He gets some dramatic punch back toward the end, when he connects just about the only element of Cheney’s character he’s allowed us to like—his unhesitating, loving acceptance of his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) when she comes out as gay—to one last personal and political betrayal.
How fair this is, I obviously can’t say. Indeed, I’m certainly not well versed enough in recent history to pass detailed judgement on what’s accurate, what’s dramatic license and what’s scurrilous in this movie, and neither will be most other commentators. McKay himself admits, in a title at the beginning, that Cheney’s secretiveness makes telling his story difficult, adding “We did our [blank]ing best.” Inevitably, your own politics are likely to dictate how well you think they did, but either way, you’re likely to find that, overall, Vice grips you.