Brainy, audacious, opinionated and fun, “Vice” is a tonic for troubled times. As smart as it is partisan, and it is plenty partisan, this savage satire is scared of only one thing, and that is being dull.
Written and directed by Adam McKay, who won a screenwriting Oscar for the dazzling “The Big Short,” “Vice” tackles a subject as unlikely to result in gleeful cinema as the 2008 financial meltdown.
That would be a deep dive into the life and times of uncompromisingly uncharismatic former Vice President Dick Cheney, played by Christian Bale.
But, as McKay well knows, the word “vice” is not only a governmental title, it’s the opposite of virtue, and his film doesn’t hesitate to depict the two-time veep as a conniving eminence grise whose eight years in office resulted in some of the most troubling aspects of American political life.
Political scientists can argue about the truth of that. The fun of watching “Vice” is not in having your preconceptions appealed to or assaulted, but in enjoying the rousingly cinematic way the story has been told.
Unusual for a writer-director whose language possesses such snap and pizazz, McKay delights in throwing anything and everything up on screen, including type, unexpected news photos (Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap) and stock footage like a clip featuring Marvel’s Galactus, “Devourer of Worlds.”
More than that, in “Vice” McKay is keenly intent on playing games with structure. He drops a Shakespearean soliloquy into the dialogue, has Alfred Molina playing a waiter offering Cheney and company a variety of torture options as plats du jour, even makes believe he’s ending his film in the middle, complete with a fake credits roll.
Making it all work as well as it does is committed acting from stars Bale and Amy Adams, as Dick’s spouse Lynne Cheney, as well as an expert supporting cast of some 150 speaking roles highlighted by Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush and a surprising Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.
Bale, first among equals, is known for his ferocious commitment to the roles he takes on, and “Vice” pushes that determination one step beyond.
As Cheney, the actor gained 45 pounds and worked especially hard on strengthening his neck because, he told the Hollywood Reporter, “when you get that no-neck, you feel like nobody can change your mind.”
Bale managed to endure almost five hours of daily makeup sessions by Oscar winner Greg Cannom as well as create a believably human true believer inside that shell, someone who unblinkingly says, “I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done.”
Adams, who played opposite Bale in both “The Fighter” and “American Hustle,” is clearly energized by his presence and rarely to better effect than here as half of a potent Washington power couple and the driving force behind her husband’s career.
“Vice” begins with two sequences nearly four decades apart, cutting between two extremes in Cheney’s life, asking in effect how a man could go from being an alcoholic roustabout to being hurried into the Presidential Emergency Operations Center for protection after 9/11.
More than that, Cheney is shown shocking Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) and others by unhesitatingly assuming presidential authority.
There was confusion, fear and uncertainty in that room, the film’s mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons) tells us, “but Dick Cheney saw something no one else did. Dick Cheney saw an opportunity.”
As intricately constructed by McKay, “Vice” concerns itself not only with Cheney’s rise to power (“one of the most powerful leaders in this country’s history, and he did it like a ghost”) but the nature of political power in general.
For though he is a latecomer to it, Cheney, goaded by Lynne into abandoning his ne’er-do-well status, soon discovers a passion for, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” being in the room where it happens.
In fact, when he gets into the congressional intern program in 1968, Cheney makes a beeline for Rep. Rumsfeld, said to use his position like a butterfly knife.
As that unidentified narrator (eventually shockingly unmasked) says, Cheney had “finally found his life’s calling: being a humble servant to power.”
Parallel to his rise in Washington, D.C.’s corridors of influence (and his surviving of multiple heart attacks), Cheney becomes fascinated with something called the unitary executive theory, which posits that presidents have absolute authority.
That might make being vice president to a genial George W. Bush (Rockwell’s feet-on-desk portrayal almost steals the picture) seem counterintuitive, but “Vice” posits that Cheney cannily found a way to effectively become co-president if not something more.
McKay is clearly not averse to taking swings at Cheney for a variety of matters, including the bitter family fight between sisters Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe) about gay marriage, but what seems to upset him most is something distinctly nonpartisan.
That would be the notion, broached early and returned to at the end, that “as the world becomes more and more confusing, we ignore facts that change and shape our lives. When we do have free time, the last thing we want is complicated analysis.”
Unless Americans of all political stripes pay attention to what’s going on, “Vice” insists, the results will be dire. A very dark warning from a very funny film.
Rated: R, for language and some violent images
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes