VICE, comic biographical drama, rated R; Regal Stadium 14, The Screen, Violet Crown; 3 chiles
Try having a little fun with a grim subject, and the knives come out. Critics have come down on Adam McKay (The Big Short) for trivializing the monstrous legacy of America’s Darth Vader, former vice-president Dick Cheney. Or, if your taste runs that way, for the unseemly lampooning of a great American statesman.
But the goofy side of McKay’s portrait of the man who rose out of a boozy gutter to become the most powerful second banana in our nation’s history is there to counterpoint a deadly serious story. In his embodiment of Cheney, Christian Bale is nothing short of jaw-dropping. It’s not just the weight he gains during the course of the picture, it’s everything about him — the slouch, the walk, the tilt of the head, the hunch of the shoulders, the sneer, the stare, the dark cloud. He embodies his subject so thoroughly it’s creepy.
We discover Cheney in Wyoming in 1963 as a young ne’er-do-well, a drunk, a carouser, a college dropout with no apparent ambition or future. He would seem to be a guy with nothing going for him.
But he does have one great asset, and that is his fiancée Lynne, played with padded steel by Amy Adams. Lynne reads her man the riot act from the perspective of an ambitious woman in an era when the only realistic path forward for a woman was to pick the right horse. She digs her spurs into Dick, and he shambles forward, cleans up his act, and somehow winds up in Washington as an empty vessel who hitches his wagon to the cart of a politically savvy jokester named Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). It’s not long before Cheney has pulled even with, and then surpassed, his mentor.
It’s when Bush the Younger is being steered toward the presidency that Cheney seizes his ultimate opportunity. Dubya (an entertaining Sam Rockwell) wants his dad’s former secretary of defense as his running mate. McKay has a good time indulging in the metaphor of Cheney the fly fisherman, playing the young candidate like a largemouth bass.
The movie doesn’t have a lot of love for the man who gave us the Iraq War, shot his hunting buddy in the face, and inspired a whole genre of black humor when he required a heart transplant. But he does get credit for being a loving family man, who responded with compassion when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) came out as gay.
McKay laces the story together with commentary from an occasionally seen narrator ( Jesse Plemons) who delivers a surprise twist. The biggest missed opportunity is failing to explore the relationship between Cheney and Bush in any depth. And sometimes the humor may go a little over the top, as when Rumsfeld collapses with helpless laughter when his young staffer asks him what they believe in. But much of the film is needle-sharp. And driven by Bale’s extraordinary performance, it hits with the force of a weapon of mass instruction. — Jonathan Richards
Weapons of mass corruption: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, and Andrea Wright