'Vice': Film Review

Tragically funny and hilariously tragic.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams play Dick and Lynne Cheney in Adam McKay's sprawling dark comedy about George W. Bush's vice president.

There's smart, there's wicked smart and then there's Adam McKay smart — the latter of which is on full display in Vice, a scorchingly audacious and dark tragicomedy about the man who, the film argues, became the most powerful and dangerous vice president in the history of the nation.

Trim Christian Bale brilliantly morphs into the potato-ish frame of Dick Cheney in a nervy high-wire act of a film that relates, with merciless humor, the odyssey of a thoroughly unpromising young man who slowly but surely thrust greatness (in his own mind) upon himself by shrewdly playing his cards over several decades. One immediate benefit of the film will be to give the Trump-obsessed media someone else to hammer for a while. But fortunately, this film is not Saturday Night Live-style mockery designed merely to score easy political points but, rather, deep dish satire of the sort that is in generally short supply; beyond that, it illuminates how the track was laid to help us arrive at where we are today. This feels like a zeitgeist event that has its finger on the public pulse and its thumb firmly up the rear of its subject.

The opening minutes boldly announce McKay's ambitious agenda. The first we see of Dick Cheney is as a drunken 22-year-old wastrel in 1963 Wyoming, a kid who could arguably benefit from the discipline instilled by a stint in the armed forces (he never did serve). Cut to 9/11, when then-Vice President Cheney assumes total power over the government in the temporary absence of the president. McKay thus poses his central question: How the hell did this two-time Yale dropout make the jump from nonentity to string-pulling power behind the throne?

It's a challenge that the film seriously embraces over the course of two hours, but it does so in the humorous spirit of Swift and Voltaire, or perhaps the likes of Terry Southern and Gore Vidal if you prefer a more recent era; the surface treatment can seem prankish and outrageous, but beneath the foolishness lies grave consequence. This is, in other words, a dead-serious comedy, one that grapples with history and why things went the way they did, with a hungry conviction.

Adopting a kind of free-form documentary approach, McKay pins young Cheney as a ne'er-do-well who never would have amounted to anything had it not been for his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), who early in the marriage flings down the gauntlet: "Either you have the courage to become someone or I'm gone." Suitably chastened, young Dick finds his way into a 1968 congressional intern program (Roger Ailes pops up briefly here as a consultant) where he becomes intoxicated by the world of power and influence, moved through most adeptly by President Richard Nixon's notably youthful associate Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).

Tagging along through the corridors of Washington politics does something for this prairie kid, and he's pulled toward the inner sanctum as he ascends from one good job to another: chief of staff to President Ford, a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for a decade. Making it a power couple, Lynne becomes chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Seemingly propelled by fortuitous friendships and happenstance more than resolute ambition, at least at first, former lush Cheney makes the acquaintance of as-yet-unreformed drinker George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), whose dad just happens to be president. At this point, the film comes close to turning into a cartoon, seeming on the verge of losing its precarious balance by taking potshots at the younger Bush's yee-haw accent and idiotic behavior. Might Vice still yet self-identify as a feature-length SNL sketch after all and sacrifice its boldly earned status gained via a brilliant mix of comic daring and historical depth? Will this brazen consideration of eminent, still-living historical figures lose its nerve and settle for mere caricature?

A brilliant coup de cinema soon answers that question. After about three-quarters of an hour, end credits begin to roll, as if the film is over. That's it, Gore becomes president, the Bushes can all go back to Texas and Cheney can hunker down at Halliburton to rake in the millions. Happy trails for everyone, including the USA — Vice is a very short movie, over and out.

Well, but no, actually. As Orson Welles observed, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." And the real story for Cheney, and Vice, truly begins here.

The 2000 election is (pick one) won, finessed or stolen, W. gets a full eight years in the Oval Office as opposed to his father's four. There's 9/11 to avenge, Saddam to kill, endless Middle East wars to get bogged down in and, for Cheney, far more power than any previous vice president has ever had.

Leaving its coulda-been happy ending behind, Vice now becomes a warped black comedy. Brilliant scene follows brilliant scene: The Cheneys are glimpsed in bed excitedly exchanging conspiratorial Shakespearean dialogue (is McKay actually equating the couple to the Macbeth clan?), the vice president obligingly offers to take a few little matters — like foreign policy, for starters — off the president's plate just to make things a little easier for him, while old buddy Rumsfeld is installed as secretary of defense.

Without belaboring anything, the film makes crystal clear the tragic misguidedness of the Iraq War, Secretary of State Colin Powell (played straight and very nicely by an unexpected Tyler Perry) being cornered into supporting it and the administration's role in influencing historically nonpartisan TV news coverage (Naomi Watts puts in an uncredited cameo as a reporter), to name just a few Team Bush initiatives from which there was no turning back.

Through wit, surprise and an irrepressible ballsiness comes a scorching humor that neither curdles nor becomes exhausted. What does wear out is Cheney's heart — the man has had five heart attacks, beginning at age 37, followed by a heart transplant in 2012 — although some have insisted that he never had one.

Even though the film is devastating in its assessments of Cheney's attitudes and decisions, it's so buoyant, its general mood so exhilarating, that it rarely seems like it's resorting to cheap shots or gags for effect. It's the work of a great, mordant tragi-comedian, someone whose primary skills lie in humor but, as he's grown as an artist, has learned to plant his satiric skills in fertile dramatic soil. The creative yield was strong in The Big Short, but here even more so.

McKay's most visible enablers are his outstanding actors, all cast to terrific effect. Bale has been known as a shape-shifting chameleon through most of his career but, with the addition of 45 pounds or so, the actor disappears into his character as if in a magic act. Across the two hours, Bale brilliantly navigates through Cheney's evolution from irresponsible young cowpoke to eager-beaver sycophant, company man and, ultimately, the chief officer who knows how to steer the ship of state, in this case more decisively than the captain himself. The actor has the posture and body language down perfectly, as well as the look in the eyes that can be at once genial and steely.

Adams is outstanding as her husband's sharp and, in the early days, far more resourceful accomplice; to twist a popular term of the time, she certainly was the great woman behind the man, as it's quite clear he would never have gotten anywhere near where he did without her. Fortunately, Adams in no way condescends to her character. The couple had two daughters, one of whom, Mary (played here by Alison Pill), has long been openly gay and eventually married, with the full support of her father, who, with his libertarian attitude, split with many other Republicans on the matter. But her sister, Liz (Lily Rabe), nursing political ambitions of her own, was against it.

Both Carell and Rockwell start their performances in high-pitch caricature mode but soon settle into credible grooves that are close enough to the real guys that you fully accept them; Carell earns some strong laughs, while Rockwell, after initially overdoing it a bit, ends up channeling George W. in a way that feels quite satisfying.

Across the board in Vice, everyone has risen to the occasion of their individual challenges, none of them easy, to collectively pull off a political satire that both provokes great laughs and hits home with some tragic truths. Perhaps somewhere down the line McKay will do the same for some of the current crew bouncing off the walls in the White House.

Production companies: Gary Sanchez Productions, Plan B
Distributor: Annapurna Pictures

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham
Director-screenwriter: Adam McKay
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Will Farrell, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Chelsea Barnard, Jillian Longnecker, Robyn Wholey, Jeff G. Waxman
Director of photography: Greg Fraser
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Editor: Hank Corwin
Music: Nicholas Britell
Casting: Francine Maisler

Rated R, 131 minutes