Fans of former Vice President Dick Cheney (stray thought: Why does Chris Matthews insist on pronouncing it Cheeney?) will want to stay away from this movie, maybe even pretend that it doesn’t exist. Detractors of him will find cause to celebrate Hollywood’s decision to make it. Writer-director-producer Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “The Other Guys,” “Anchorman”) has crafted an unflinchingly nasty portrait of the 46th vice president, presenting him as an ambitious snake of a man whose lust for power guided his life.
But another factor in whether you’ll want to see it or not is where Christian Bale sits in your choice of favorite actors. The film covers the period of 1963 to 2008, when Cheney’s ages ran from 22 to 66 and Bale, who is 44, plays Cheney all through it. The actor is easily recognizable when portraying him as a drunken, brawling Yale student. But then he starts to age, with the script taking him through 1968 (lands a spot in Washington’s Congressional Internship Program and goes to work for Donald Rumsfeld, as played by Steve Carell), then to 1973 (has become a political consultant and is on the way to being a Washington insider), and to 1978 (out of the national picture, he tries for a comeback, running in the Wyoming congressional race). And on and on.
By the time he became a well-known figure, running on the ticket with George W. Bush, he was recognizable around the country. But it’s at that point in the film, long after it’s already begun jumping around in time with flashbacks and flash forwards, that Christian Bale - there’s no other word for it - vanishes. Making use of everything from putting on additional weight to donning a fat suit, and from getting balder and balder to nailing Cheney’s voice and sneer and body tics, he disappears into the role.
The same goes for Amy Adams, playing his wife Lynne, at least physically. (Does anyone really know what Lynne Cheney sounds like in real life?)
As much as this is the story of Cheney and his strange and terrible rise to power, it also works as a history lesson, told in sometimes frenetic style, using footage of real people and events mixed in with actors portraying others around them. There’s Nixon resigning on TV, there are the solar panels being put up at the White House when Jimmy Carter won the presidency (and being removed when Reagan did). There are the Twin Towers coming down.
While that kind of thing fascinates viewers, they’re going to be more into the actors’ contributions. It’s always interesting to see what Carell does with his more serious roles, and he makes it easy to strongly dislike his Rumsfeld. It’s kind of fun to see Tyler Perry giving us a straightforward presentation of recreating Colin Powell. But if movies gave out awards to supporting actors each time, this movie’s would go to Sam Rockwell for his George W. Bush, who’s introduced here as a sloppy drunk partygoer, and is later presented as someone who’s in over his head and out of his element when he goes for and wins the presidency.
One of the film’s best scenes has then-Governor Bush and a very reluctant Cheney discussing the idea of Cheney being his running mate. The back and forth dialogue sets that scene, but the actors’ shared willingness to successfully go for uncanny imitation is what seals it.
Besides revealing the ugly side of politics in and out of Washington, “Vice” also shows off a snarky and winking and very dark sense of humor, some of it heading into areas of satire. And, as if it hadn’t already done enough of keeping things real, when it comes around to Cheney’s pet project of invading Iraq, it again dips into the well of having actual people show up onscreen, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Mike Pence, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Fox TV host Bill O’Reilly. And don’t worry. Though the scene only takes a few seconds, the film covers the instance when Cheney shot his pal Harry Whittington in the face during a hunting trip.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Adam McKay
With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell