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 fiancée, 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’s ferocious performance, this is a film about a man who amassed enormous influence through any means necessary. And the tale, spanning half a century, 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.
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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 self-reflective, 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.
starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Steve Carell, Lily Rabe and Tyler Perry. Directed by Adam McKay. Rated R for language and some violent images. Running time: 2:12