You can’t say Adam McKay isn’t timed into the cynical zeitgeist that defines American political discourse. “Vice,” which gets an inspired performance from Christian Bale, is a zany, caricatured and highly partisan take on the life and times of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
A top-notch cast takes a decimating look at the Bush era, with anointed villain Cheney front and center. Whether thus qualifies as a biopic or a mauling (Cheney was a liberals punching) is another story.
Longtime insider Cheney, George W. Bush’s hatchet man, made a huge comeback in the early 2000s — thanks in part to Osama bin Laden. He sat atop a group of warrior advisors (remember Paul Wolfowitz?) fixated on using the terrorist menace to up their White House cred. Flanking Cheney was mentor and buddy Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell takes this role for quite a ride).
McKay, a one-time “Saturday Night Live” skit writer, doesn’t stray far from these roots. His Cheney is a Batmanesque “Joker” in a business suit ready to undo all who get in his way while flexing his narcissistic muscles to suit 50 shades of caricature. He all but mimics “New York Times” pundit Maureen Dowd, whose poisoned pen columns referred to the hapless Bush as “W.” and the conniving Cheney as “Vice.”
The upside of all this is Bale, who hams his way into malevolence. He’s perhaps the most elastic actor of his time. Amy Adams, another classy performer, boosts the show as Lynne Vincent Cheney, who is wife, accomplice and cheerleader in a marriage that takes on a cinematic life of its own.
But in an age in which the sitting president makes hay of so-called “fake new” and himself straddles the line between the comic and the sinister, this Cheney portrayal can seem facile.
Cheney was anything but cartoonish in his dedication to transforming the status of his once-marginal office.
Political biopics are intrinsically risky when the material is still fresh, so a filmmaker has two options: kowtow to mockery or rise above it. McKay did the latter with his sub-prime gem “The Big Short.” That film’s ambiguity is a no-show here. So much so that he needs a narrator, Kurt, a fictional vet who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, to tell audiences how Cheney ascended “like a ghost.” Kurt also helps facilitate flashbacks to Cheney’s Nixonian youth (on Nixon’s failure to erase damning Watergate tapes: “He got sloppy.”)
Much later, when Bush (Sam Rockwell) offers Cheney the VP spot, he morphs into Machiavelli: “Maybe I can handle some of the more mundane jobs, overseeing bureaucracy, managing military, uh, energy, uh, foreign policy.”
To which Rockwell’s clueless Bush replies: “That sounds good.”
Funny? Maybe. Faked to the gills? You bet.