The way “Vice” tells it, Dick Cheney, who would go on to become the most powerful vice president in American history, started out as a young man in a hurry to nowhere in particular. After washing out of Yale, he retreated to his home state of Wyoming, pursuing his interests in booze and cigarettes and working as a utility-company lineman on the side. Dick was saved from ruin by the stern intervention of his fiancée, Lynne Vincent, who told her wayward beau that they were finished unless he pulled himself together.
In that pivotal moment, Dick (Christian Bale) looks Lynne (Amy Adams) in the eye and swears he’ll never disappoint her again. The thesis of this film, written and directed by Adam McKay, is that Dick kept his promise. And that everyone else — including his daughter Mary (Alison Pill), thousands of American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and just about everyone on the planet with a care for justice, democracy or simple human decency — paid the price.
It will break no news to note that McKay is not a fan of his protagonist. His argument is essentially that much of what critics of the current president fear most — the erosion of democratic norms; the manufacture of “alternative facts”; the rise of an authoritarian executive branch — already came to pass when George W. Bush was in office. But “Vice” offers more than Yuletide rage-bait for liberal moviegoers. If this is in some respects a real-life monster movie, it’s one that takes a lively and at times surprisingly sympathetic interest in its chosen demon.
McKay, staying close to the historical record (and drawing on books by journalists Jane Mayer and Barton Gellman), propounds a negative great man theory of history, telling the story of an individual who was able, through a unique combination of discipline, guile and luck, to bend reality to his will. The man’s feats are both impressive and appalling. He learns the Washington inside game during the Nixon and Ford administrations, applies the lessons during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and demonstrates his unmatched mastery when George W. (Sam Rockwell) comes along.
The story of his rise, roller-coastering through four decades of American history, is a hectic blend of psychohistory, domestic drama and sketch-comedy satire bound together by McKay’s ingenuity and indignation. The pace is jaunty, the scenes crackle with gleeful, giddy incredulity, and the dry business of statecraft attains the velocity of farce. The fourth wall is periodically broken, most often by an affable everyman narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose connection to the main character turns out to be one of the few surprises in the plot.
Bale, thickening and graying before our eyes, burrows into the personality of a shrewd operator endowed with whatever the opposite of charisma might be. His Cheney lacks any trace of charm, humor or warmth, except sometimes in the company of his family. Dick’s devotion to his wife and their two daughters is genuine, but what motivates him above all is the study and acquisition of power, a vocation in which he has Lynne’s fierce and unstinting support.
While he can afford to be sentimental about domesticity and chivalrous toward the women in his life, she has no use for such softness. Dick brings doggedness and tactical instincts to their partnership; Lynne provides the ideological steel. McKay’s portrait of their marriage subscribes to a Macbeth-like conception of political morality. Behind every bad man, there is a woman who is even worse. Adams, as brisk as January in Cheyenne, establishes Lynne as the movie’s covert protagonist.
To the question “How did he do it?” McKay offers a fairly coherent answer, one grounded in Bale’s canny and sensitive performance. As biography, in other words, the movie works pretty well. As history, though, it’s another story — at once tendentious and undercooked, proposing a reductive, essentially conspiratorial account of recent events. The motley pageantry of our politics — the endless arguments about race, class, religion, ideology, sex, region and heritage that have defined the republic since the beginning — boils down to a single personality. All you really need to know about the world today is that everything wrong with it is Dick Cheney’s fault.
How did he get away with it, though? The answer McKay supplies is that he was smart and the rest of us were too dumb and too distracted to stop him. As “Vice” winds down, there is a scene of a political focus group during which a young woman, bored by all the partisan bickering and talk of abstract issues, looks forward to the next “Fast and Furious” movie. It’s hard to know whether this represents hypocrisy or penitence on McKay’s part, but the idea that someone can’t care about both politics and popular culture is dubious at best. At worst, it’s a sneer directed at the audience, an expression of contempt for the public that the movie seems to share with its designated villain.