Ambition does not ensure accomplishment; that was true of Dick Cheney, and it also applies to Adam McKay’s uneven film about him. “Vice” boasts an exceptional performance by Christian Bale and is consistently interesting, occasionally even brilliant, but also overstuffed and rather disjointed. The result is a bit of a mess, though a fascinating one—an exuberant satirical portrait of a bland apparatchik who morphs into the dictatorial power behind the presidential throne and wields the authority he’s purloined with quiet ruthlessness.
Not that, as McKay presents him, Cheney was always ambitious. As “Vice” opens, he’s presented as little more than a hard-drinking hooligan who’s retreated back to his home state of Wyoming after flunking out of Yale. He has a job—as a telephone lineman—but he’s the sort of wild man who gets into bar fights and trouble with the law. It’s only an ultimatum from his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who threatens to leave him if he doesn’t shape up, that forces a change of attitude.
The movie briefly flash-forwards to 9/11, when Cheney is shown taking the reins of government after the Twin Tower attacks, issuing orders in a way that shows he’s really the one in charge, not scatterbrained George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), in order to contrast his inauspicious beginnings with the “Darth Vader” figure he eventually becomes. It then reverts to 1968, when the rather bovine young man, determined to meet Lynne’s expectations, has come to Washington as a congressional intern and falls in with the ostentatiously power-mad congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who becomes his mentor and patron.
McKay’s screenplay proceeds from that point in roughly chronological order as Cheney follows Rumsfeld up the Beltway ladder under Nixon, eventually reaching the position of White House Chief of Staff during the Ford Administration, though it periodically interrupts the semi-straightforward approach for additional flash-forwards to the post-9/11 years and gussies up the narrative with hectic edits and insertions.
Though he’s sidelined when Ford loses to Carter in 1976, Cheney moves on to a Wyoming congressional seat (won for him largely by Lynne, who campaigns for her lethargic-looking husband when he’s felled by a heart attack). He then becomes Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush before moving into private life as CEO of Halliburton after Bush is defeated for re-election by Bill Clinton.
It’s at this point that McKay tosses in perhaps his cleverest touch, falsely ending the picture with a credits crawl, suggesting that Cheney might never have resumed a life in politics had Gore succeeded Clinton in 2000. But of course reality reasserts itself as George W. Bush approaches Cheney with the idea of being his running-mate; and though he says no, he offers to serve as a one-man search team, and uses that post to snare and reel Bush in (his love of fly fishing being one of the picture’s motifs), not only taking the job himself but persuading Bush—portrayed by Rockwell as pretty much a buffoon—to give him a wide-ranging portfolio. He also outmaneuvers his supposed boss in assembling an effective if unscrupulous team, and winds up in many respects, McKay argues, the de facto president who pretty much governs from the shadows after 9/11, controlling policy behind the façade of Bush’s leadership while using and dismissing his comrades as necessary, including Rumsfeld.
McKay tells Cheney’s story in contrasting rhythms, often presenting Cheney moving in an extremely deliberate fashion while events swirl around him in whirlwind montages of found footage, staged recreations and cheekily invented passages (at one point, he and Lynne have a Shakespearean bedroom conversation). In addition to the fly-fishing motif, there’s a recurrent emphasis on Cheney’s succession of heart attacks—presented in grimly humorous fashion. And McKay provides a narrator, played by Jesse Plemons, to tie things together and explain the course of events (though captions are also used to that end); his identity will be divulged only toward the close.
There’s a sense of sheer playfulness to some of what McKay does, but more often the humor has an acidic edge. (A scene in which Alfred Molina appears as a waiter to rattle off legal options for justifying extreme actions like items on a menu is a perfect example.) And though there are virtual cameos by lots of subordinate characters—Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk), Condoleeza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), Frank Luntz (Adam Bartley), Karl Rove (Joseph Beck), Roger Ailes (Kyle S. More), Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacobs) and many others—the focus is definitely on the trio of Dick, Lynne, and Rumsfeld (even Bush plays a relatively minor role).
Bale offers as stunning a physical transformation as Gary Oldman did in “Darkest Hour,” and he captures Cheney’s quirks—the weird sidelong movement of the mouth, the methodically boring speech pattern—perfectly. If the performance doesn’t really go much deeper than impersonation, it has to be admitted it’s brilliant impersonation, and the lack of depth is the fault not of the actor but McKay’s script, which is content to skim the surface in a darkly amusing way. The script does add some nuance with a thread about the protective stance Cheney takes toward his daughter Mary (Alison Pill), who’s gay—until political considerations related to the aspirations of his older daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) intrude. Adams, meanwhile, endows Lynne with steeliness as well as well-placed, calculated gregariousness, but Carell’s Rumsfeld is pretty much a one-note blowhard.
Among the technical crew, special recognition must go to editor Hank Corwin, who manages to give McKay’s riotous, unwieldy collages at least the semblance of coherence. But the other major members of the team—production designer Patrice Vermette, costumer Susan Matheson, cinematographer Greg Fraser—also do yeoman service in realizing the writer-director’s rambunctious vision.
“Vice” is sharp and audacious, though also snarky and at times simply juvenile. Those who still consider Dick Cheney the prince of darkness will love it. Others may find it a tad exhausting.