‘Vice’ is wild, epic mis­sion to ex­ca­vate Cheney’s soul

EEE Cast: Chris­tian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rock­well, Steve Carell Di­rec­tor: Adam McKay 132 min­utes Rated R (lan­guage and some vi­o­lent im­ages)

The Tribune (SLO) - - Ticket - BY KATIE WALSH

In Adam McKay’s biopic of for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney, “Vice,” the sto­ry­telling and struc­ture is ob­ses­sive, wor­ry­ing at sev­eral re­peated mo­tifs: Cheney (Chris­tian Bale) fly-fish­ing, drunk­enly ca­reen­ing down a dirt road and a tree carved with a heart en­cir­cling the names Lynne + Dick. “Lynne + Dick” would be a bet­ter ti­tle for this scathing, scat­tered por­trait of Cheney, who might have re­mained a Wyoming line­man and ne'er-do-well had his power-hun­gry fi­ancee, Lynne (Amy Adams), not de­manded he shape up after haul­ing him out of the drunk tank one morn­ing in 1963.

But de­spite Lynne’s pup­pet mas­tery, and Adams’ fe­ro­cious per­for­mance, this is a film about a man who amassed enor­mous in­flu­ence through any means nec­es­sary. And the tale, span­ning half a decade, is gar­gan­tuan. McKay has bit­ten off an im­pos­si­bly huge bite with “Vice,” and to mas­ti­cate it fully, he throws ev­ery sto­ry­telling de­vice he can at it. There’s a mys­te­ri­ous nar­ra­tor, voiced by Jesse Ple­mons, and celebrity cameos ex­plain­ing com­pli­cated con­cepts, much like in McKay’s “The Big Short.” There are board game pieces and archival footage and nar­ra­tive tricks as­sem­bled into a head-spin­ning pas­tiche, with the im­pos­ing Cheney the silent and deadly cen­ter of grav­ity.

Bale im­bues the tac­i­turn Cheney with a chilly, mag­netic charisma. A ti­tle card warns, “Be­ware the quiet man.” His quiet is the kind that makes peo­ple lean in to hear what he has to say, crave his ap­proval, be­lieve in his ideas. Bale ex­udes the essence of the man with his tight-mouthed gri­mace, his hor­i­zon­tal desk lean, the men­ac­ing head tilt.

The tale be­gins si­mul­ta­ne­ously in 1963 and on Sept. 11, the two most im­por­tant mo­ments in Cheney’s life. The first is when he de­cides to change him­self – for Lynne – and the se­cond is when he changes the world, for­ever, with his on­go­ing thought ex­per­i­ment about just how far ex­ec­u­tive power can be stretched.

Cheney keeps his cards close, un­like his swag­ger­ing, ruth­less men­tor, Don­ald Rums­feld (Steve Carell), who plays them ag­gres­sively. As a film­maker, McKay is a lot like Rums­feld, show­ing his cards all the time. McKay should have ex­er­cised more re­straint in a few mo­ments; a few too many in­dul­gences lean far into per­sonal ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing. Those are the mo­ments when “Vice” tips into par­ody – and it’s far more ef­fec­tive as hor­ror.

“Vice” is not a “both sides” kind of biopic. It firmly ex­presses its point of view that Cheney harmed our coun­try for­ever with his Machi­avel­lian machi­na­tions. A cheeky post-cred­its se­quence in which McKay cops to his “lib­eral bias” is a bit of a cop-out. But the film re­quires a strong po­si­tion – to re­main ob­jec­tive is to li­on­ize Cheney. What McKay wants and needs to do is un­der­stand him. But what he un­cov­ers from the se­cre­tive Cheney’s life re­mains con­found­ing, and McKay floun­ders while at­tempt­ing to reach a con­clu­sion.

McKay’s epic ex­plo­ration into Cheney’s life and work is dark, sober­ing and in­cen­di­ary. The film is wild, cre­ative and sel­f­re­flec­tive, and McKay could have been a bit more self-re­flec­tive of his own per­spec­tive. His ges­tures toward “the other side” are con­de­scend­ing and flip­pant, ac­cus­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple of de­nial and es­capism. This in­tru­sive mor­al­iz­ing mars what is oth­er­wise an un­yield­ing and nec­es­sary search party on a mis­sion to ex­ca­vate Cheney’s soul. It’s both frus­trat­ing and fit­ting that McKay never finds it.

MATT KENNEDY An­na­purna Pic­tures

Chris­tian Bale stars as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in “Vice.”

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