Every year there are at least a few Oscar-prestige movies, usually arriving around Christmastime, that are praised to the skies simply for being adult entertainments. These pictures ostensibly require the use of a few more brain cells than the standard superhero spectacle or lame middle-aged-guy comedy to which we’re subjected during the other months of the year. But if Vice, Adam McKay’s creaky romp through the life and career of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, really is aimed at adults, why does it treat its audience like idiots? McKay seems to think we can’t be trusted to grasp what he sees as Cheney’s Machiavellian villainy unless he spells it out in cartoon language. There are no actual cartoons in Vice, but McKay packs in so much figurative Wile E. Coyote anvil dropping that there may as well be.
There’s nothing wrong with depicting Cheney—played here, often swaddled in prosthetics, by Christian Bale—as a buffoon-turned-treacherous schemer. In fact, if it were less greasily slick, Vice could have been an awesome Christmas gift to Dick Cheney haters everywhere. But McKay, who also wrote the script, is too taken with his own conceit. The movie’s style is similar to, but much less effective than, that of McKay’s 2015 The Big Short, which dramatized the weird, woolly, disheartening story of how four canny outlier investors (one of them played by Bale) foresaw, and profited from, the subprime-mortgage meltdown. Early in Vice—even before the opening credits roll—we hear a voiceover intoning the observation that American citizens just don’t want to be bothered with understanding the intricacies of “our government, lobbying, complicated trade agreements or tax bills.” McKay matches that mini-lecture with images of women whooping it up on the dance floor. So he’s going to edify and punish us, all in one movie—and make us pay actual money for the experience? Sounds like a con to me.
Still, it might be possible to enjoy Vice for other reasons. McKay is an ambitious filmmaker: He covers Cheney’s checkerboard life story with quicksilver hops and leaps that defy strict chronology and could, if you’re in a generous mood, be considered a kind of vivaciousness. Then again, it could just leave you exhausted. McKay begins, more or less, near the beginning of Cheney’s adult life, in 1963 Wyoming, as he’s being busted for drinking and driving. That voiceover voice—it belongs to Jesse Plemons, whose character plays a role in Cheney’s life that’s not revealed until the end—tells us all about the early days of Dick: His high-school sweetheart and the woman who will eventually become his wife, Lynne (played by a stiff, buttoned-up Amy Adams) gets straight A’s; she helps him get a scholarship at Yale, but he flunks out. That DWI almost breaks them—she has no interest in hitching her shiny star to a bum. But later, she’s thrilled when her beloved Dick pulls himself together and maneuvers his way into a low-level job working for his idol, the blatantly crass Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), at the time a member of Nixon’s cabinet.
Vice shows Cheney as a man blessed with the gift of turning the misfortunes of others into his own personal jungle gym of ambition. Because the story isn’t told chronologically, Bale’s Cheney grows heavy, then thin, then heavy again before our eyes; his skin goes from CGI-enhanced youthful smoothness to silicone-abetted jowliness, and back, in the blink of an eye. We watch as Bale-as-Cheney climbs higher and higher politically: In the real-life timeline, Cheney was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff From 1975 to 1977. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 and served until 1989, during which time he and Lynne became a Washington power couple extraordinaire. George H. W. Bush appointed him Secretary of Defense, and later, during the Clinton years, he joined the private sector as CEO of Fortune 500 oil giant Halliburton. In 2001 he ascended to the post of Vice President under George W. Bush, a position that, in the movie, Adams’ Lynne at first dismisses as “a nothing job.”
Hardy-har-har. Because this is the point at which Cheney’s career as a master manipulator bloomed fully. McKay reminds us—in lines of dialogue, in title cards, in that voiceover—of the many consequential and nefarious decisions Cheney squeezed through the sieve during his tenure as VP, a time during which he was pretty much the de-facto President of the United States. It was Cheney who got us into the Iraq War, at the cost, McKay notes, of some 4550 American lives—not to mention the lives of roughly 600,000 Iraqi civilians. Cheney used the alleged presence of jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq as an excuse to launch that war, stirring up a hornet’s nest that would eventually lead to the formation of ISIS. McKay stresses Cheney’s affinity for torture techniques like waterboarding. And he shows how Dick and Lynne Cheney ended up betraying their younger daughter, Mary (Alison Pill), who had come out as gay, to further the political career of older daughter Liz (Lily Rabe).
It’s all pretty awful. And yet somehow, McKay doesn’t make it seem awful enough. The tone of Vice is jauntily Michael Moore-ish, although McKay doesn’t even seem as angry as Moore tends to be. He frequently interrupts the story with found footage or bold images. Some is zany (a blood-red heart floating in black space), some is jarring (abstract but vivid depictions of torture), but almost none of it works. McKay’s style here is the equivalent of a knowing cackle; the whole enterprise, elaborate as it is, comes off as lacking in passion. The Big Short had an exhilarating kick, but it also left you feeling queasy over the destructive misdeeds you’d just witnessed. Vice just leaves you feeling sapped, advertising its cleverness without actually being clever.
And then there’s Bale, lumbering around in his elaborate makeup job, carrying the 40 pounds he gained for the role as if it were a badge of integrity. Other actors circling the Cheney-Bale sun king include Eddie Marsan as hawkish Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Tyler Perry as the ill-used Secretary of State Colin Powell. George W. is played here by Sam Rockwell, who gives the best performance in the movie: He captures W’s goofy, slap-happy nature, and if he makes that “What, me worry?” bonhomie seem more harmless than, in real life, it really was, he’s at least great fun to watch. But Bale’s performance comes off as little more than an incredibly detailed stunt. He has duly mastered Cheney’s tendency to speak out of the corner of his mouth and, as the older Cheney, he lugs that extra poundage around dutifully. You believe this is a guy who suffered five heart attacks.
But why do we laud actors for weight gain? Isn’t a performance more about nailing the essence of a person than their corporeal form? And isn’t that more demanding? Bale and McKay shape a portrait of Dick Cheney as a slippery son-of-a-gun, a kind of human eel. But in the end, McKay has more respect for Cheney’s wiles, as distasteful as they may be, than he does for his audience. He’s hip to Dick Cheney’s intelligence; he just doesn’t think much of ours.