Contrary to the old saying, history isn’t written by the winners — if it were, nobody would be flying Confederate flags. Sometimes, as in the case of Adam McKay’s rapid-fire satirical biography “Vice,” it’s written by sharp and angry storytellers on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
In chronicling the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney, McKay aims to repeat the formula he deployed in his 2015 hit “The Big Short.” In that film, McKay depicted a horrendous failure of policy — the corruption of the U.S. mortgage market, and how when the housing bubble burst it took a lot of the American economy with it — through a comic presentation of facts and a dose of righteous fury.
Would that approach work again in “Vice,” dissecting a career of shady dealings and power grabs that flourished in the presidencies of Gerald Ford and both Bushes? It does when passing the many stops on Cheney’s long career in politics, but not when McKay succumbs to overreach in listing the societal ills for which he blames Cheney personally and directly.
The movie moves through many episodes in Cheney’s life, starting in the 1960s as an electrical lineman in Wyoming, prone to starting drunken bar brawls. After one such fight, Cheney gets an ultimatum from his then-fiancée, Lynne Vincent (Amy Adams), to get his act together or lose her.
One thread in “Vice” is how Cheney in his early years encounters lowly officials who later become big names. As a congressional intern, he hitched his star to a young congressman from Illinois, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). At another point, a junior Justice Department staffer named Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacobs) has a unique theory, “the unitary executive,” conferring unbridled power on the presidency. And so on.
With a narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose connection to Cheney is revealed only toward the end, the story continues through Cheney’s work as Ford’s chief of staff, 10 years in Congress, his first couple of heart attacks, and his time as George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary — where he orchestrated the first Iraq War. That would have been enough for a full career, and McKay even suggests as much with what looks to be the end of the movie, until you realize it’s only been an hour.
In 2000, Cheney gets a fateful phone call from George W. Bush (well caricatured by Sam Rockwell). The younger Bush needs a running mate and asks Cheney to be it. At first, Cheney declines — the vice presidency being a notoriously boring and powerless job — but offers to help Bush pick a good No. 2. That pick turns out to be himself, but only after sizing up W. as being weak enough to allow Cheney more executive power than any V.P. before him.
What follows is history that most of us already know, from the tragedy of 9/11 to the ginned-up excuses to invade Iraq for the benefit of Cheney’s petroleum-craving cronies. Along the way, Cheney cherry-picks intelligence, approves of torture on detainees and short-sightedly puffs up the reputation of a jihadist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who later founded the terrorist group known as the Islamic State. Also, Rumsfeld re-enters the picture, saying out loud the things Cheney would rather keep quiet.
Bale’s performance is impressive and all-encompassing. Between prosthetic makeup, a substantial weight gain and a well-trained ear to the former vice president’s droning cadences, he delivers an uncanny physical and vocal imitation of Cheney. He also captures something more elusive: a sense of the man behind the policy-wonk briefing books, able to conceal the most sinister actions behind a drab, bureaucratic demeanor.
McKay’s script and direction feel like what one might see if Oliver Stone, in one of his more conspiratorial moods, directed an episode of John Oliver’s comic newscast “Last Week Tonight.” McKay peppers the narrative with absurdist set pieces, like imagining Dick and Lynne’s mundane pillow talk as Shakespearean dialogue, and comic sequences to deliver expository information about such things as the spread of Cheney’s acolytes through the Bush administration.
The grab-bag of cinematic tricks aren’t as brash and original as in “The Big Short,” but McKay only gets to make that first impression once. More troubling is how he tries to connect too many dots back to Cheney’s ideas and initiatives — like blaming Cheney for inadvertently creating the Islamic State. “Vice” wants to paint Cheney as the evil mastermind of 40 years of Republican megalomania and not merely the most savvy player within it, but McKay’s intel is as selective as that of the man he’s depicting.
Christian Bale’s transforming portrayal of former Vice President Dick Cheney is a wonder, but director Adam McKay’s semi-comic approach to serious policy sometimes lets the movie down.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Tuesday, Dec. 25.
Rating • R for language and some violent images.
Running time • 132 minutes.