During the long and awful years of the George W. Bush presidency—and no comparison to our current, more flamboyantly destructive regime will make those years any less long or any less awful—there was one question that used to come up again and again in my conversations with friends: What did the machinations of the Bush II White House look like behind closed doors? How many layers deep would one have to penetrate into the inner circles of power before all pretense of public service or sound conservative governance dropped away, and all that was left were the victors dividing the spoils?
Vice, writer-director Adam McKay’s darkly comic biopic about the rise to power of Bush’s scheming vice president, Dick Cheney (played by an utterly transformed Christian Bale), spends its two hours and 12 minutes imagining various possible answers to that question. Some of those answers are grimly plausible, others gleefully absurd. But in McKay’s vision of the Bush administration, it doesn’t take long to get to the layer where backroom deals are frankly being cut, with the neocons getting their wars, the billionaires their untaxed estates, and the evangelicals their public performances of “family values.” The question McKay returns to is not the one that obsessed me, about how the administration’s inner circle might have rationalized their malfeasance to themselves and each other (a version of the perennial “How do they sleep at night?”). Rather, McKay seems in Vice to be preoccupied with how best to convey the heinousness of the Bush administration to us. Will an outlandish dirty joke get the point across? If not, what about a quick cutaway to a realistically re-created waterboarding incident? And if the destabilizing effect of that juxtaposition doesn’t get you properly agitated, how about a body horror–style close-up of the vice president’s diseased and apparently compassion-proof but still beating heart?
McKay’s style recalls the radically eclectic approach he used in The Big Short, his ambitious and successful 2015 comedy about the shady banking practices that led to the 2008 financial crisis. But in Vice, the storytelling becomes even more disjunctive, more “multimedia,” more bluntly polemical, and more playfully perverse. Characters suddenly launch into profane monologues (one of Cheney’s policy proposals involves elected officials communicating with the public via their own personified penises) or inexplicably speak in pseudo-Shakespearean cadences. Naomi Watts explains each boggling news development to us in a recurring cameo as a cable-news anchor who seems almost apologetic that, yes, all this is actually happening. Another straight-to-camera narrator, a war vet and suburban dad played by Jesse Plemons, has a direct connection to Cheney that’s revealed only in the final few minutes. A fake closing-credits sequence starts to roll a full hour before the movie’s real ending.
These abrupt changes in tone make Vice a bracing viewing experience, even if, in contrast to the rollicking The Big Short, it’s rarely exactly funny. In that movie, the Brechtian fourth-wall-breaking approach served as leavening to lighten the screenplay’s cognitively demanding miniseminars about tranches, collateralized debt obligations, and other complex financial products. (To help the medicine go down even smoother, these lessons were administered by easy-on-the-eyes movie stars with goofy props: Ryan Gosling and his Jenga blocks, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath sipping champagne.) But in Vice, where the basic proposition—that Cheney and his entire Bush administration cohort were a pack of greedy, power-mad crooks—is simple enough to have been grasped by most of this movie’s potential audience for nearly two decades, McKay’s manic style shifting mainly serves an emotional purpose: It’s meant to whip the audience into a froth of anger at the cynical opportunism of the Bush years. Unfortunately, that effort often undermines Vice’s other, less successful project: to provide insight into the biographical motivations of Dick Cheney, who, as a pre-movie title card reminds us, is one of the most secretive public figures of modern times.
If sheer physical and vocal transformation were the sole criteria for winning a Best Actor Oscar, then Bale’s Cheney would take it in a walk. Once he’s aged, through ingenious makeup, prosthetics, and a 45-lb. weight gain, into the vice president as we know him, Bale is an uncanny double for Cheney, right down to the fixed one-side-only smirk. His voice, too, takes on that familiar dismissive snarl, the uninflected basso growl that could make even the most brazen counterfactuals sound somehow authoritative. (My then-boyfriend and I had a word for the nonsense language Cheney would spout when he went on Sunday talk shows to bamboozle the public about the latest round of war atrocities: We called it ooglety-booglety.) Even after a career notable for the extreme physical risks he takes for his roles (losing 60 pounds for The Machinist, for example), Bale’s disappearance into this part is almost unsettlingly complete. If it weren’t for the early scenes in which Bale plays the college-age Cheney looking like a heavier version of himself, I could have been convinced that the role had been cast with an unknown actor with a marked resemblance to the former vice president.
That isn’t to suggest that Bale succeeds merely as a Cheney impersonator. Especially in his scenes with Amy Adams—who plays the vice president’s devoted but uncompromising wife, Lynne, as a vicariously ambitious Lady Macbeth type—Bale goes as far as any actor could toward humanizing a political figure who, as the film goes out of its way to show, falls several heart sizes short of the Grinch. Bale has always excelled at communicating the inner lives of men whose exteriors remain opaque, from the Dark Knight movies’ Bruce Wayne to American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. In his few too-brief scenes with the reliably wonderful Alison Pill as the Cheneys’ gay daughter, Mary, Bale movingly conveys the one incontrovertibly positive quality of this often arrogant and oblivious man: He dotes on his wife and daughters—which is why it represents such a betrayal when the elder Cheneys stand by in silence while one daughter, rising right-wing politician Liz (Lily Rabe), implicitly devalues her sister’s domestic partnership in a homophobic campaign statement.
Still, by the end of this busy yet curiously insubstantial film, Bale’s accomplishment, like Adams’, winds up amounting to less than it should have. This may be because McKay’s script never misses an opportunity to drive home a point with a metatexual flourish, whether it’s a news clip pointing up the irony of the vice president’s rhetoric or a cut between time frames that contrasts his youthful inexperience as a Nixon aide with his self-righteous swagger during the Bush years. Vice is so weighed down with narrative embellishments that its many simpler virtues, including a perfectly judged supporting performance from Steve Carell as Cheney’s pitiable yet loathsome mentor Donald Rumsfeld, get lost in the rococo encrustations.
I spent much of Vice trying to work out why the same narrative strategies that worked so well in the raucously entertaining The Big Short—the bold mix of truth and fiction, the use of multiple direct-to-camera narrators, the unapologetic assumption of a strong directorial point of view—suddenly felt smug and even propagandistic, as if Michael Moore had taken to making scripted features. A part of the answer lies in the fact that, unlike the complexities of banking lingo, the depredations of the Bush White House are well known to most Americans, especially those inclined to watch a satirical movie about those years. Another possibility: As audience members have been known to shout out during improv shows (the place where McKay got his start before moving on to writing and directing TV and film comedy), maybe it’s still “too soon.” At a moment when the whole country is choking on the bitter fruit the Bush administration planted, it’s hard to find much that’s funny about the likes of Dick Cheney.