The crucial moment in Vice, Adam McKay’s furiously funny mock biopic about the rise of Dick Cheney, doesn’t come when, as Vice President just after 9/11, he makes a naked power grab and shifts the country onto a war footing. It’s not when he calls his wife Lynne from a cubicle in the Gerald Ford White House and says, “We did it.” It happens back in Wyoming in the early ’60s.
Cheney is going nowhere fast after drinking after another drunk night that saw him tossed in the slammer, Dick—a hefty and dissolute bear of a guy played with uncanny and brutal intensity by Christian Bale—is being read the riot act by Lynne (Amy Adams). She already has a useless alcoholic for a father and doesn’t want one for a husband. Next thing we know, it’s 1968 and he’s listening to Don Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) usher him and the other Congressional interns into a world of brazen opportunism.
Was there more to Cheney’s decision to snap his life around and start on his march to seemingly limitless power? Of course. Is it something that any biographer, print or cinematic, is likely to uncover? Probably not. Cheney is an uncommonly secretive and skilled operative. A master of the bureaucratic machine and Constitutional loopholes, he’s a deft political knife fighter whose victims don’t even know they’d been shivved until they’ve already bled out. This sort of behavior doesn’t leave much of a record. Just a lot of rumor and covered-up tracks. As the on-screen note from the filmmakers says in a shrugging way, “We did our fucking best.”
That said, the Cheney presented in Vice is pretty close to the one we saw in those terrifying years after 9/11. The one going on Meet the Press to talk with barely repressed glee about going to “the dark side” to fight this wrong war against the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. (Bale takes the sideways silent snarl seen in that chilling appearance and runs with it.) The one who popped up with creepy regularity in the behind-the-scenes books, pulling strings behind a clueless George W. Bush and not-so-secretly operating the machinery of a government, Cheney had long yearned to break free of the chains of democracy.
Indeed, the icy smile that crinkles Bale’s eyes as Cheney coldly outmaneuvers Bush (Sam Rockwell, charmingly doofy) during their discussion of what the Vice President’s portfolio would be (everything) is the same one we still see glaring out with unapologetic mastery and malice from the black-and-white stills of a Frontline documentary. It’s the look of a man who knows that the soon-to-be President also drank more than he studied at college, but unlike the also onetime drunkard Cheney, Bush had a family fortune to fall back on. The exchange brings new meaning to the term “useful idiot”.
Only in McKay’s hands, all of this is funny. Albeit in that apocalyptic manner so many of us use to get through the day. But funny nonetheless. In part that’s due to his jangled-up timeline and liberal use of snarky voiceover and smash cuts to hammer home the point; similar to what he did in 2015’s The Big Short. Much like that movie, which can be seen as a kind of agitprop guide to the Great Recession, Vice operates as a politically infuriated improv-comedy reading of the post-9/11 Forever War, like Howard Zinn as done by Funny or Die.
Vice charts Cheney’s rise to power from young and Watergate-embittered Gerald Ford chief of staff to sly War on Terror architect in swiftly-done strokes that leave little room for analysis of intentions. In a sense, he’s too grand a villain for such minor motivations as greed or revenge, though both of those appear here in the run-up to the Cheney-directed invasion of Iraq. That’s probably as it should be. Didn’t most of Shakespeare’s villains do what they did simply for the satisfaction of the deed itself? Isn’t ultimate power its own reward?
Some of Vice‘s comedic strength comes from the supporting cast. They zoom in from so many different angles it’s almost as though they’re not in the same movie. Carell’s Rumsfeld doesn’t even try to nail down the mannerisms; it’s just Carell in a dark suit (though the actor does get the spirit of Rummy, that cheery impatience and blithe disregard for pesky reality, just right). The laugh he gives when Cheney asks in perfect innocence after another round of Machiavellian maneuvering, “What do we believe?” is pure joy rippling with open malice.
On the other hand, Rockwell’s Bush is a creation of observational genius, physically nailing the squint and the slow pursed-lip thinking-while-speaking thing better than Will Ferrell (a producer here) ever did, and locating the hapless president’s daft mixture of cocksure confidence and deep insecurity. Out on another plane entirely is Tyler Perry’s surreally mannequin-like Colin Powell.
McKay tells Cheney’s story in a mock heroic tone that skims deliberately close to the real thing. Following his arc from washed-up telephone line repairman to the halls of power with little more than sheer determination could easily have been presented in a way that gave glancing credit to at least his supervillain moxie. McKay includes scenes that could be read as admirable. When the diehard Republican operative with no compunction about dealing from the culture-war deck is told by his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) that she’s gay, he stands by her without a second thought. Even though the substance of that scene is based in reality, its undercut almost immediately by a fake closing credits scene and the sense that we’re just being set up for an inevitable betrayal down the road. Again.
Along with The Big Short, the righteously infuriated and wonderfully gonzo Vice creates part of a roadmap for how we got to where the world is now. Which begs the inevitable question: Who is McKay planning to play Trump?