Christian Bale transforms into Dick Cheney in this blackest of political comedies.

click to enlarge Believe it or not, this is Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice
  • Believe it or not, this is Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice

What do you do about a problem like Dick Cheney?

The former Vice President of the United States sits at a pivot point in history. He's the connecting link between the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. He led the team that led the United States into an ill-fated war in Iraq. He was the original architect of the War on Terror, now 17 years old and counting. How do you tell a story that huge, that complex, and that damning, to a popcorn audience in a couple of hours.

Writer/director Adam McKay starts by calling Cheney a "dirtbag," then gets more specific from there. McKay, former head writer for Saturday Night Live and director of pop-comedy juggernauts like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, is probably the best qualified person to make a movie like this. The Big Short, McKay's blow-by-blow of the 2008 financial crash, is told with wit, sarcasm, and a whole lot of voice over. Even as a news nerd, I felt like I came out of that film feeling both entertained and like I understood the world better.

click to enlarge Amy Adams (left) as Lynne Cheney.
  • Amy Adams (left) as Lynne Cheney.

In Vice, McKay applies the same methodology to Cheney's life story, but the results aren't nearly as clean cut. The story opens with Cheney (Christian Bale) getting his second DUI for driving piss drunk in a swerving Studebaker on a rural Montana road. He's flunked out of Yale for drinking and brawling, and now he's a lineman, drinking and brawling his way through life as a flowering dirtbag. But his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) is having none of it. In a crucial scene that will echo throughout the film, she orders her mother out of the room and dresses him down. "Did I choose the wrong man?" she hisses.

Then we cut to 9:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001. It's the first of many time jumps in this byzantine screenplay. Cheney is the senior official at the White House while George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) is reading My Pet Goat to a room full of Florida school children. When he gives the authorization to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to shoot down any civilian airliners in American airspace, he does so in the President's name. It's a clear usurpation of authority, but when Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) challenges him, all it takes is one guttural growl to shut her up.

The meat of the story is Cheney's transformation from dirtbag drunk into the consummate power player. Narrated by Jesse Plemons, whose onscreen identity becomes the setup for one of the film's most powerful visual gags, the screenplay is anything but subtle. Bale has already won a Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy Golden Globe, and his unlikely performance as one of the great villains of American history is worth the price of admission alone. He's surrounded by A-listers giving pitch black performances. By the time Adams starts doing Shakespeare as Lynne Cheney, you've probably already identified her with Lady MacBeth. Carell and Bale recreate Cheney and Rumsfeld's creepy chemistry. LisaGay Hamilton makes an uncanny Condi Rice; Tyler Perry doesn't really resemble Colin Powell, but he does manage to embody the former general's conflicted countenance when he was put in the position to lie to the United Nations on the eve of the Iraq War.

This has been a season of political films, ranging from Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You on the good end to Dinesh D'Douza's Death of a Nation way down on the other end. Like Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Vice kind of flies apart at the end, as if the filmmaker just couldn't quit while he was ahead. McKay's fumble is the result of the basic problem with designing a polemic around an antihero — we're hard wired to see the guy who gets the most close-ups as a heroic figure, even if he's a war criminal who set his country on a path of ruin. For all his weight gain and intentional ugliness, Christian Bale is still an incredibly charismatic performer. Like Leonardo di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, one might end up liking him, even though he's clearly a monster.

But while having a charismatic leading man might be bad for the purposes of political rhetoric, it's great if you're trying to make entertaining cinema. Vice may be dense, divisive, flawed, and maddening, but it's definitely entertaining.

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