Dick Cheney biopic ‘Vice’ is a wicked satire that messes with the audience and features an outstanding Christian Bale performance

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in “Vice.”
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Annapurna Pictures

  • “Vice” is an unconventional biopic that’s one part look at the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and one part megaphone for director Adam McKay to call out all the things he dislikes about Cheney’s time in office.
  • If you liked all the tricks McKay used in his latest movie, “The Big Short,” get ready for a lot more of that.

Adam McKay used a unique mix of dark comedy, cameos, and breaking the fourth wall to retell how the housing bubble popped with “The Big Short,” which earned him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay – and he turned that style up to 11 to tell the story of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

If you’re going into “Vice” (in theaters December 25) expecting just a telling of Cheney’s life, stay home. This isn’t so much a biopic as it is an angry director using the movie to air all his issues with Cheney, the George W. Bush administration, and the system as a whole for allowing the US to go into Iraq to chase down fictitious “weapons of mass destruction.”


The big but here is that this is Adam McKay, the guy behind some of the best Will Ferrell movies, like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” and “Step Brothers.” So he also knows how to entertain the heck out of the audience.

McKay’s first trick is the unbelievable casting of Christian Bale as Cheney. With some added weight and the makeup team’s work on him, Bale looks so much like Cheney it’s frightening – and he gives one of the best performances of the year.

Then McKay surrounds Bale with a fantastic supporting cast, including Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, Steve Carell as his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as a spot-on George W. Bush.

And as for the clincher, it’s not so much McKay’s writing but the work of his editor Hank Corwin.

Bale and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in

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Bale and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in “Vice.”
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Annapurna Pictures

The veteran cutter has done everything from Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “Nixon” to Terrence Malick’s “The New World” and “The Tree of Life,” and his style is prevalent here. (Corwin also edited “The Big Short.”) “Vice” feels like a Stone movie at times, as a scene can jolt from a flashback to a different scene, then back to the scene we were just in.

It’s a challenge for the audience to keep up, but that’s part of the point. The entire movie messes with the audience as much as it wickedly satirizes the real-life characters it’s portraying. McKay isn’t leading you into the dark mind of Cheney – he is sprinting through it and hoping you can keep up.

As the movie shows, Cheney’s early life wasn’t much of an indication of the man he would become. He’s portrayed as a drunk with no ambition, and it’s Lynne who turns him around. This leads him to Washington, DC, and to the crude tutelage of Rumsfeld, part of the Nixon administration. In that space, Cheney sees his calling as the power behind the throne.

Decades later, and rebounding after a couple of heart attacks (Cheney’s weak heart is a great comedic element used throughout the movie), Cheney finally gets his big shot when Bush asks him to be his running mate. The Bush/Cheney ticket is capped by a perfectly edited sequence of Cheney luring Bush into his conditions for taking the job – basically, having more power than any VP before him – by intercutting scenes of Cheney patiently fly fishing, enticing the fish (Bush) with his shiny bait.

Bale and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in

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Bale and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in “Vice.”
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Annapurna Pictures

McKay shows the ruthless side of Cheney after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Taking over the War Room on that fateful day instead of Bush, Cheney is depicted in the movie as someone who has finally found a way to be above even the government – a shrewd DC player who finds an opportunity even in America’s darkest moment.

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McKay also portrays Cheney as a devoted family man who will even set aside the Republican Party’s views on homosexuality because his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) is gay. But that’s really the only time McKay is willing to give Cheney a break. This is a movie that is unapologetic about how it portrays its lead, whom Bale plays with a monotone that’s darkly comedic.

There are moments you will get frustrated and maybe even hate “Vice” for how it messes with your patience. (There’s even a moment in the middle of the movie when McKay playfully acts as if it’s over, with end credits appearing.) But that’s what I found so enjoyable about watching it.

In an era when most movies are test-screened to death and greenlighted mainly because the premise has been done so many times that it has been proved to make money, McKay gives us a movie – financed and released by Annapurna Pictures – that seems to defy all that by letting the passion for unique storytelling rule.

So buy the ticket and take the ride. It’s not a bad thing to be challenged at the multiplex sometimes.