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(2018) *** 1/2 R
132 min. Annapurna Pictures. Director: Adam McKay. Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry.

/content/films/5141/1.jpgAt one turning point in a historical drama full of them, Lynne Cheney protests to her husband Dick not to pursue a job offer. “The Vice President is a nothing job,” she says. “Hmm,” he replies. Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, proceeds to lay out how Dick wrote his own ticket as V.P. under George W. Bush, wreaking havoc around the globe in pursuit of power, profit, and patriotism, neo-con-style. With a well-researched, legally vetted original screenplay, McKay takes one step beyond his Oscar-nominated financial crisis drama The Big Short. From its tart, angry true-story disclaimer to its meta mid-credits scene, Vice proves as strikingly original in form as Oliver Stone’s JFK. McKay embraces his background in sketch-comedy as an essential component of his voice, boldly committing to a handful of satirical sketches that play out across the otherwise dramatic narrative of Cheney’s life story and political career.

More importantly, McKay enlists his Big Short star Christian Bale to play Cheney. Bale’s canny and uncanny performance nails Cheney’s speech pattern and facial expressions but also holds the complex humanity of a loving husband and father capable of compartmentalizing to the nth degree. Aided by a 45-pound weight gain and prosthetics designed by Oscar winner Greg Cannom, the 44-year-old Bale astonishingly embodies Cheney from age 22 to age 71.

We first see Cheney drunk-driving home after a bar brawl in 1963 Wyoming; jailed for his second DUI, the Yale dropout subsequently faces the music from fiancée Lynne (a fiery-eyed Amy Adams). At this first turning point, Cheney promises to shape up before Lynne ships out. Five years later, Congressional intern Dick finds a mentor in Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who laughs off Cheney’s sincere query “What do we believe in?” McKay tracks Cheney through his appointment as the youngest chief of staff in U.S. history (for Gerald Ford), his stint as a Congressman for his home state (highlighting his ultra-conservative voting record), and his fateful tenure as Vice President under George W. Bush, essentially skipping past Cheney’s time as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush and as CEO of Halliburton.

9/11 sets the stage for Cheney’s masterpiece of power-grabbing. McKay contemplates how horrible things happen to innocents half a world away based on decisions discussed casually in a “squat, little ugly building” while an overworked and underpaid, easily distracted, if not disinterested, citizenry largely fails to question the gathering storm of the Iraq War or to notice the attendant civil and human rights violations of the War on Terror, from warrantless surveillance to “enhanced interrogation” torture. “Beware the quiet man…” goes the anonymous epigraph, and McKay returns consistently to the image of Cheney the fly fisherman, patiently standing alone in a lake as he reels in fish after fish to feed his family, and perhaps his ego, using his hard-won skills. The final climax constitutes a montage of Cheney’s “heartless” decisions juxtaposed to the moment when he was literally heartless in an operating room.

McKay anticipates and addresses many obvious criticisms with cheeky aplomb. In one instance, he redacts faces and dialogue from an energy-industry meeting; in another, he undercuts the Shakespearean swath of his halls-of-power drama with a quasi-Shakespearean scene (one of a few admissions that speculative drama is one of the only recourses against Cheney-level secrecy; even Freedom of Information Act requests can’t recover deleted emails). Recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell makes a fine George W., but Carell is even better with a squinty, smiling, slimy Rumsfeld so spot-on as to elicit an iota of sympathy along with our antipathy.

All in all, Vice offers infotaining Hollywood history that’s equal parts funny and horrifying in its high-stakes political gamesmanship, with so many souls (including those of the Cheney family) in the balance. Although the basic facts are unassailable, political perspectives will disagree on McKay’s conclusions. Either way, McKay dares what no one else has with a wide-release Hollywood film: put in the glaring spotlight the top-notch political operative and tenacious survivor that is Dick Cheney, along with the unfortunately still-relevant unitary executive theory that was his most dangerous tool.

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