Adam McKay and Christian Bale on launching their Dick Cheney biopic ‘Vice’ into today’s polarized climate

"Vice" actor Christian Bale, left, and director Adam McKay.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As far as director Adam McKay knows, Dick Cheney hasn’t yet seen his new film “Vice,” a not-so-flattering biopic about the former Republican vice president set to hit theaters on Christmas.

“Through a friend of a friend, I heard [Dick and his wife, Lynne Cheney] saw the trailer, though, and they both laughed quite a bit,” McKay said on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills, sitting beside the film’s star, Christian Bale, who plays Cheney. “Dick’s comment was apparently, ‘Well, if that movie about the fish guy [‘The Shape of Water’] can win, then maybe this one has a chance.’ ”


Indeed, nominated for six Golden Globe Awards, including best motion picture in the musical or comedy category and lead actor for Bale, who transforms himself physically for the role, “Vice” has already emerged as a strong Oscar contender. Whether Cheney and his political allies will be cheering it on, however, is doubtful, to say the least.

Co-starring Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, “Vice” depicts Cheney as a calculating, Machiavellian figure who, rising to power largely in the shadows, dramatically expanded executive authority and reshaped domestic and foreign policy in ways that are being felt to this day — in McKay’s view, much for the worse. Much as he did with his 2015 dramedy about the roots of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, “The Big Short,” McKay incorporates sharply satirical, fourth-wall-breaking comedy to help the civics-lesson medicine go down easier.

The Times sat down with Bale and McKay — who before turning to more serious fare directed such flat-out comedies as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” — to discuss Cheney’s legacy, today’s deeply polarized political climate and whether they would be up for tackling Donald Trump next.

Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell and Amy Adams star in “Vice.”

Dick Cheney is generally a secretive guy who has tried to avoid the spotlight and isn’t exactly famous for radiating a huge amount of personal charisma. What gave you the confidence that he would be a compelling character to base a film around?

McKay: I think it’s precisely because we didn’t have brimming confidence that we were excited about it. I mean, that’s always the place you’re looking for, where you’re like, “I think we can do this.”

It certainly felt like a story that needed to be told. This is a guy who had an outsized influence on American history and world history. He’s clearly not a charismatic guy. He’s clearly a guy who lived in the shadows. So you pick the best people you can pick, and that was Christian, Amy Adams, my [cinematographer] Greig Fraser, my editor Hank Corwin — we all just kind of dove in and said, “Can we figure this guy out?”

Bale: I’d worked with Adam on “The Big Short,” and that was something that many people said, “How on earth can you ever make this into a film?” He seems to love the challenge of taking something that is not apparently cinematic and making an absolutely stunning film out of it. And I love those challenges as well, where you’re walking a fine line between just absolute miserable failure and a wonderful surprise success.

I was just flattered that when Adam thought, ‘Who is the most uncharismatic person I can think of?” he came to me. [laughs]

Well, I’m sure you’ve been told many times you look just like Dick Cheney.

Bale: [dryly] Uncanny resemblance. We do have the same birthday, though. That is true. That was the real reason for Adam: with the lack of charisma and the same birthday, who else could he go to? It was written in the stars.

This movie doesn’t just depict Cheney as a one-dimensional villain — among other things, we also see his love for his family. But the fact is, he seems to have an understanding of how he’s seen by many people. He has embraced the Darth Vader meme about him.

Bale: He has a sense of humor about that. He used to dress his dog as the Lord of the Sith.

McKay: No one is born evil or good or a hero or a villain. Life is incredibly complicated and we’re all doing the best we can, even the worst of the worst among us. Dick and Lynne came through the era of the Reagan Revolution that changed everything and they saw that country under attack. And he used the tools and the beliefs that he had learned, which was executive authority and power, and you hit back. And when America needs to, we can get dark.

Now I don’t agree with that personally but we felt like it’s not ours to judge. We just have to show this story, this portrait of power. And first and foremost, I think that’s what the movie is: it’s a portrait and a love story.

Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams stars as Lynne Cheney in Adam McKay's "Vice."
(Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Picture / Annapurna Pictures)

Perhaps because we’re living in such wild political times now, it seems like a lot of people are looking back nostalgically at the Bush and Cheney years in a way they wouldn’t have just a few years ago. Does that surprise you?

McKay: That was a strange thing for me to see when people started saying, “I miss Bush because of Trump.” It’s like, “Really?” That has actually just made me sad. Really what it shows is there’s a portion of the country that just wants the presidency to appear like it’s functioning. Because all you’re missing is that Bush and Cheney made it look a little bit like it was normal. Because obviously what they did is so much more monstrous, with nearly a million people dead, a country invaded for no reason, torture brought back — these horrible, horrible things.

So I found that very disturbing and odd. But also I don’t want to get too judge-y, because I will say this: Trump is really disorienting. It’s really upsetting to have a guy just swinging his arms around like a gorgon, just smashing and destroying everything around him. So I understand that people have reactions to that. But no, if you look at what Bush and Cheney did, it’s absolutely monstrous.

Bale: I think it’s just the need for survival that we tend to remember the best. We’re taught as children to see the best in people and that becomes deeply instilled in good people. But at a certain point it becomes incredibly naïve and duplicitous because you’re willfully ignoring something that’s abhorrent because, “Hey, he did kiss the baby on the campaign trail and he does have that charming smile.”

Looking at Cheney, I found myself doing that. In finding the good — and there’s always something commendable in anybody — you started to really want the best. But what you’re wishing away is not just other people’s discomfort but death … And as you said and I believe Maureen Dowd, [with Trump], right, there’s still time — [sighs] oh God, what a horrible thought. But the body count doesn’t even begin to compare.

Adam, during the production of this movie, you had a heart attack. Did that in any way change the way you saw Cheney, who has a long history of heart problems? Did it somehow humanize him more for you?

McKay: It happened a couple of weeks after we wrapped, so yes and no. What it does is make you look at your life and what you’re doing and what things really matter. In that regard, it definitely had an impact.

The craziest part of the story was I’m on the [operating] table and there are people standing over you and I’m on these drugs they’re giving me while they’re putting the stent in the back part of my heart. And I was so high that I thought everyone needed to know that I just worked on a movie about Dick Cheney.

I’m like, “This is crazy. I just did a movie about Dick Cheney and here I am.” And there was this beat and I heard a voice to my right go, “Dick Cheney — great American.” I was like, “Well, it’s complicated.” [laughs] He goes, “What’s complicated about it?” I go, “Well, you know, Iraq didn’t turn out so good.” And he goes, “Better than Obama.”

Then there’s another beat and I go, “I don’t really want to argue with you. I think you just saved my life. I just want to thank you and thank everyone here.” And there was just silence and he was gone.

In today’s climate, everything is now being seen through a political lens. How confident are you that people who aren’t already left-leaning will open themselves up to this movie and not just dismiss it as a slanted movie from liberal Hollywood?

McKay: [deadpan] I’m 100% confident, without a doubt. Our next screening is live in Dallas Cowboy Stadium and it’s going to be for the entire NRA. [laughs]

You know, honest to God, the only way to really get it is you have to see it. When we test screened it, there were plenty of Republicans in the audience and in our test groups they would always go, “That’s fair. That happened.” We didn’t have responses of people going, “That’s a lie!”

There will be people who won’t see it just because Adam McKay supported something they don’t like — and we all know Christian Bale is a very public Satanist.

Bale: [pumping his fist and chanting] Baphomet! Baphomet!

McKay: But I dare anyone to turn away from his performance and Amy’s performance and Sam’s and Steve’s. I mean, it’s so compelling. And I’m excited to see what it does out there.

So having now tackled Cheney, do you feel any compulsion to take on Trump?

McKay: Everyone keeps asking me about that. I do not want to sit in a room for eight months with that. I don’t want to make this guy dye his skin orange.

[pauses, then shakes his head] But I don’t know. I just realized, we’re probably going to … do it now.

Bale: [laughs] Yes, Adam just decided it. And off we go!

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Twitter: @joshrottenberg