McKay’s dazzling new film Vice, which follows the seldom-considered but incalculably powerful career politician and oil man across 50 years — and manages to convey the labyrinthine workings of the American government with the same fluency and ease used to explain the 2007-2008 American financial crisis in The Big Short — has done what no mere hatchet job could hope to do.
McKay has made Cheney seem human. Nothing could be scarier (or freakishly funnier) than a calculating flesh-and-blood politician running roughshod in our midst. Not even Clive Barker could conceive of a dude as scary as the 46th Vice President of the United States and onetime chairman and CEO of Halliburton Company, played by a never-better Christian Bale who leads an exceptional cast, including a chillingly realistic Condoleezza Rice, played by LisaGay Hamilton, and Tyler Perry (of all people) as Colin Powell.
We first meet the young Cheney in Wyoming in 1963 where he is splitting his time between boozing, brawling and getting better acquainted with the local constabulary. Spitfire girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) is not having it, and lays down an ultimatum: either Dick straightens out or it’s over. The demand will reverberate throughout their relationship, which gets almost as much play here as Cheney’s nefarious White House fox-trots. The couple’s inexorable rise through the ranks begins.
Cheney’s political ascension, initially more serendipitous than strategic, allows him time to observe the inner workings of government from a perch behind blustery Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) who, like Cheney, will hopscotch across several administrations, his success a mix of cunning and ruthlessness. It’s tempting to call the pair’s conspiratorial devotion to each other Faustian except it’s hard to know who the dominant devil is.
Though the story is laid out chronologically, McKay’s narrative is loopy, employing all sorts of weird asides and absurdist interludes to lighten the expositional load. There’s no Margot Robbie in a bubble bath but there is a narrator whose bizarre connection to the story buttresses McKay’s point that while Cheney’s backroom maneuverings may seem superhuman, he was very much earthbound, a point underscored by a running joke about Cheney’s lousy ticker.
The meat of the meal, of course, is the White House’s post-9/11 posturing and the subsequent U.S.-led Iraq invasion, as well as Cheney’s obsession with the seductive Unitary Executive Theory, which suggests that a president can do whatever he likes with impunity in the name of public safety despite dissent from other branches of government and within the confines of the Constitution.
McKay’s movie is declarative on a few points, namely that former president George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) was a dunce manipulated by Cheney. Indeed, McKay lays virtually all of the ills of Bush’s administration at Cheney’s feet, suggesting unequivocally that Cheney was de facto president which may be impossible to know for sure, but viewers of Vice would be disinclined to bet against it.
McKay also posits that Lynne Cheney was a towering influence over her husband and, by extension, the world. Also, that we live in a terrifyingly small world where the whims of a few well-placed men in power are absolute despite the horrendous collateral damage that imbalance ensures.
That’s horror, alright, and so frightening you have to laugh. McKay gets us right where he wants us and while Vice may come off as a bit of a screed at times, it sure is a fun ride. Be sure to stay until the end of the credits for an additional “hidden” laugh.
Vice. Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham and Eddie Marsan. Opens wide December 25.