Richard Bruce Cheney was the quiet man of American politics – the ultimate DC insider who rose through the ranks, waited his turn and bided his time. That time came in July 2000 when Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush asked him to be his running mate, an offer that enabled him to become – by most pundits’ estimation – the most powerful and influential vice president in the history of the United States. Were you to ask an Average Joe what he knew about Dick Cheney, though, you’d likely draw a blank.
Yes, he might remember that embarrassing incident from 2006 when he shot a fellow quail hunter in the face, or a more recent mishap when he was persuaded to sign a waterboard kit by Sacha Baron Cohen. For the most part, though, the minutiae of Cheney’s life and legacy remain as elusive and enigmatic as the man himself – which one suspects is precisely how the man himself likes it. Over 132 hilarious, acerbic and coruscating minutes, Vice takes a wrecking ball to that wall of secrecy. Charting a course from Cheney’s unpromising origins as a drunken Yale drop-out in ’60s Wyoming to his de facto shadow presidency in Dubya’s White House, writer-director Adam McKay paints his subject as an unremarkable mediocrity who learned how to stealthily interpolate himself into the corridors of power.
Pensive, taciturn and essentially unknowable, the Cheney we see in Vice is the complete antithesis of a public figure. Yet it was this very anonymity, the director suggests, that enabled him to ascend unnoticed, extending and consolidating his authority to the point where he could pursue his aggressive conservative agenda (and OK, those controversial “enforced interrogation techniques”) totally unchallenged.
Employing the same take-no-prisoners, fourth wall-shattering aesthetic he used to unpick the global financial crisis in The Big Short, McKay populates his film with a rogue’s gallery of Beltway notables. Look, there’s Steve Carell as a flamboyant Donald Rumsfeld! Tyler Perry as a po-faced Colin Powell! Bill Camp as Gerald Ford and LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice! On and on it goes, reaching its zenith when Sam Rockwell swaggers into the picture as a chicken wing-chomping, checked shirt-wearing George Bush Junior.
There’s even a cameo from Donald J. Trump, fleetingly seen in a montage of ’80s excess alongside Jane Fonda and The A-Team’s Mr. T. Rather more pivotal to the narrative is Amy Adams as Cheney’s blonde-coiffed wife Lynne, an aspiring Lady Macbeth whose Shakespearean ambitions are hammered home in a daring scene in which she and her husband ponder Dubya’s proposition in iambic pentameter. It is her description of the young Cheney as “a big, fat, piss-soaked zero” that inspires him to get his act together, while his fierce devotion to her is revealed in a funeral sequence in which he ruthlessly tells her father they want nothing more to do with him.
It takes longer to establish the relevance of the unnamed narrator figure played by Jesse Plemons (Fargo), though it turns out that this character, too, has a crucial part to play in Cheney’s life story. At the end of the day, though, you can’t tell that story without a mighty big Dick. And Vice has a massive one in every department in Christian Bale, the Welsh-born actor outstripping all of his previous on-screen transformations (The Machinist, The Fighter, American Hustle) with a bulky, tonsured, prosthetic-assisted makeover that is a shoo-in for this year’s Best Make-Up Oscar.
As stunning as the exterior is, however, it is the way Bale vanishes inside it that truly impresses. Witness the moment on 9/11 when he coldly orders commercial planes to be shot down if it is suspected they have been hijacked, or his final to-camera address when he tells us he “will not apologise” for the multiple human rights abuses and other outrages that have taken place on his watch.
It’s not so long ago that McKay was only known for such goofball farces as Step Brothers, Anchorman, and Talladega Nights. In a few short years, he’s recreated himself as an Oscar-winning scourge of the American right, a metamorphosis almost as breathtaking as his current leading man’s.
Yet Vice is an admonishment to the left as well, not to mention a stinging rebuke to an electorate that allowed their country to be taken over from within. We get the leaders who we deserve, the film appears to be warning us – particularly when we are not paying attention.
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- Release date: Out now (US)/January 25 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 132 mins