Adam McKay's restless Dick Cheney lament, "Vice," belongs to a sub-genre of recent political biopics one might characterize as "The Important, the Powerful and the Generally Pathetic," with the subjects embodying all three traits.
Oliver Stone's sneakily sympathetic George W. Bush inquiry "W." (2008, released while Bush was still in office) and Jay Roach's HBO teleplay "Game Change" (2012, with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin) belong on that list. These movies are dialectical exercises, their makers — to varying degrees — unafraid to make their subjects look pretty shallow, or a little lost, at least.
Stone's "Nixon" biopic qualifies as well, though watching that movie I had no idea what Stone thought of his subject, other than: "Complicated! And generally pathetic."
"Vice," by contrast, suggests George W. Bush's two-time Vice President is not an especially complex figure. "Scarily powerful" is another matter. What "Vice" says, and how it says it, will have half its audience nodding in angry, contemptuous agreement, and the other half calling it a liberal smear.
In other words it's like everything else in the culture right now.
McKay's film paints Cheney as the chief instigator of the Iraq invasion and the millions dead as a result of that invasion. He's a sloppy, vomiting mess as a young man (the film opens with a drunk-driving arrest in 1963 Wyoming) and then, increasingly, a better-behaved cipher of a politician, fixated on personal power.
Cheney's humanizing trait is his love for his family. Then, in collusion with his politically astute wife, Lynne, he sells out one daughter for the political advantage of the other.
Christian Bale plays Cheney. It's quite a technical feat. The prosthetics, the latex, the makeup, the weight gain and the crafty actor beneath the exterior makeover combine for a consistently purposeful performance. Amy Adams goes to town as Lynne Cheney, the down-home, brass-knuckles Lady Macbeth to her watchful, muttering husband. Steve Carell's mentor-turned-victim Donald H. Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush _ both have fun with their familiar real-life subjects, though they seem to be rolling in from an adjacent movie set, where a funnier, sharper Cheney biopic is being filmed.
We skip back and forth through the decades, and Cheney's five heart attacks. The unnamed man addressing the camera and serving as narrator (Jesse Plemons) eventually reveals his hidden connection to the hollow man at the center of "Vice."
McKay's popular and well-liked previous feature, "The Big Short," did a lot of what "Vice" does, which is to say: anything and everything to keep the exposition and the summary judgments as lively as possible.
At one point in "Vice" Alfred Molina turns up as a waiter at a posh D.C. restaurant, going over a menu of U.S. Constitutional options Cheney and his cronies are considering. It's amusing — a quick blackout sketch stitched into the loose-fitting fabric of the script. Elsewhere, Adams and Bale, in bed, interrupt the scene to comment directly on the rather drab dialogue exchange at hand, and then launch into what appears to be mock-Shakespearean verse ("make flesh our bond of power" and the like).
McKay's approach in scenes such as this strike me as roughly as effective as his endlessly footnoted storytelling techniques in "The Big Short." But I didn't really go for "The Big Short." The glibness dulled rather than sharpened the takeaway, the who-got-away-with-what in the 2007-2008 global financial meltdown. Clever as he is, something in McKay's sense of humor, when applied to nonfiction topics he's seriously angry about, provokes a passive sort of despair, and a cliched sense of liberal helplessness.
McKay wanted to make "Vice" because he found Cheney's influence on modern American geopolitics to be astonishing in its far-reaching destruction. You can agree or disagree. But the move throws in cheap visual metaphors via stock footage — a puma taking down a gazelle, for example, when Cheney and Antonin Scalia chortle over customary notions of the limits of executive power. The guiding symbolism in "Vice" emerges in images of Cheney fishing in a Wyoming stream, baiting his hook, waiting for the next sucker to bite. McKay's editor, Hank Corwin, intercuts between these images and Cheney's wily political maneuvers on Bush's ranch, or in the White House corridors. It's reductive but it works, if you can find it amid the clutter.
Is it just too soon? If "Vice" came along 10 years from now, would a deeply skeptical look at this sphinx of a bear of a man play differently? Maybe.
But in both "The Big Short" and this film, the momentary diversions accumulate into a pile of: Nothing to be done. We'll never learn. Watching an excoriating full-on political satire such as "The Death of Stalin," on the other hand, feels very different.
The vicious verbal and visual delights are bracing. Then, without missing a step, the movie chills the blood. I'm not equating Cheney with Stalin, but "Vice" left me not with the bitter truth of recent American history, but with a tonally uncertain docudrama encased in latex and snark.