When offered the vice presidency, Daniel Webster was succinct: “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.” Vice, Adam McKay’s scorching dramedy, posits that Dick Cheney took a cold, clinical look at the same office and saw boundless opportunities. McKay spends over two hours skewering Cheney on a spit, placing many of the world’s woes directly at his sizzling feet. As a satire, Vice combines blunt force humor with frighteningly authentic performances that do much to overcome the film’s maddeningly unfocused narrative.
The story plays like a warped version of every biopic’s greatest hits: Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) spends much of his youth as a blazing dumpster fire. He drinks himself stupid and crawls home through his own slobber. Cheney’s life could’ve been a Merle Haggard song were it not for his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams). She presents herself like an astronaut’s wife but glares at Dick with the imploring ferocity of a pageant mom. Her desperate pleas prompt him to both dry out and move on up.
As he climbs the political food chain, Cheney gains another shepherd in the form of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell). At this point, Rumsfeld is a young congressman whose impish grin conceals ferocious ambition beneath. Rumsfeld ushers Cheney into the Nixon and Ford administrations and navigates him through the perilous fallout from Watergate. Cheney becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford and eventually the sole congressman from Wyoming.
By the 90s, two factors seemingly curtail Cheney’s ascent: Bill Clinton’s dominance of the political landscape, and his daughter Mary’s outing as a lesbian. Cheney contents himself as the CEO of Halliburton until George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) offers him the vice presidency. Cheney’s response is similar to Webster’s: “The vice presidency is a…largely symbolic position.” But Cheney spends a few days stewing, and deduces that this might be his best chance to be the Man Behind the Curtain. Cheney accepts Bush’s offer, but on the condition that he be given unprecedented leeway to imprint himself onto the executive branch.
Like any political narrative, Vice will be largely shaped by the individual proclivities of its audience. Those who view Cheney as a repugnant, pro-corporate bureaucrat will nod approvingly, as will those who think George W. Bush was nothing more than an amiable doofus. Meanwhile, non-believers might see this as hateful, alienating pretentiousness. Either way, McKay sends his song straight to the choir, making this a film that will entertain many but convert few.
Much of that entertainment derives from watching such skilled actors pitch themselves into full-tilt impersonations of the people they play. Bale is absolutely stunning as Cheney, who spends much of the film grumbling and grousing out the side of his mouth. His Cheney is so flat and dry that he greets every heart attack with the same gruff assessment: “I may, uh, have to go to the hospital now.” Conversely, Amy Adams infuses Lynne Cheney with sanguine energy as she guides Dick up the mountainside. As played by Carrell, Don Rumsfeld feels like a combination of disarmingly friendly and coolly conniving. “I know you’re not sorry,” he says to a Cheney apology. “You know how I know? Because I wouldn’t be.”
In the final analysis, Vice is a film that uses scathing humor to hide how pissed off it is. McKay clearly views Dick Cheney as the embodiment of everything wrong with the world–an icy, despicable man whose machinations led his country to war and plunged the Middle East into deeper chaos. However, the second half of the film covers too much ground. It wanders and wobbles and loses a good chunk of its momentum. McKay probably imagined this film as a scalpel, but it ends up as a blast of buckshot instead.