Adam McKay plays for laughs in Vice like Scheherazade playing for time. Lives are at stake—the lives of people everywhere subject to American power—and McKay figures that if he can just keep the jokes coming, and so coax us into watching the exposé he’s built around the lumbering, grunting, tooth-sucking figure of Dick Cheney, we might yet rise up from the multiplexes and save ourselves.
He has followed this narrative strategy before, in The Big Short (2015), where he achieved great advances in the art and science of the celebrity footnote. (Example: Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, explaining how subprime mortgages can be packaged as bonds.) But the gallows humor in The Big Short concerned only the deliberate engineering of a financial collapse that ruined millions. In Vice, McKay’s theme is nothing less than an oligarchic coup, to which he believes Cheney quietly devoted himself throughout his career as White House chief of staff, congressman, and finally vice president—a coup that announced its success with shock and awe in the skies above Baghdad, and a rattling of hollowed-out democratic institutions at home. A subject so large and terrible demands that McKay take in earnest the title that he and Will Ferrell gave their comedy website, Funny or Die, and deliver that proposition’s all-in cinematic expression: a long, loose, raunchy variety show in which actors play dress-up and put on silly voices in pursuit of a desperate purpose.
The sense of desperation actually comes first in the movie, established in two contrasting images of situations careening out of control. Vice begins on a dark Wyoming road in 1963, where a car driven by a blind-drunk young Cheney is veering toward probable disaster. Then, without transition, the camera is suddenly pushing along behind Cheney on the morning of September 11, 2001, as a Secret Service agent hurries him into a command room. Just like that, shakiness and speed plant their flags in the film’s visual style, calamity lays claim to the atmosphere, and McKay’s Cheney impersonator, Christian Bale, goes from being a lean-jawed young tough to a bald, portly usurper of presidential power, no longer taking foolish risks after a bar fight but now gambling on the fallout from mass murder.
The voice-over narrator—an informative mystery character—sums up this introduction by asking how Cheney became who he was: a man who could give the Pentagon shoot-to-kill orders on his own authority. Vice sets out faithfully to answer that question about an individual’s moral formation; but since this film is as much agitprop as biopic, as much political history as comedy, it further complicates the opening by adding what you might call McKay’s Law: a theory of the electorate’s Cheney-enabling obliviousness.
You see the evidence flash before you in found images: self-involved men playing golf while a forest fire rages in the background, slack-jawed women dancing spasmodically in the throes of pop-music possession. The mystery narrator argues that a population overburdened by work and overwhelmed by the world’s complexity can’t be expected to behave otherwise, but the grotesqueness of the pictures McKay has chosen suggests he might harbor a less sympathetic attitude. You catch a whiff of resentment from the professional funnyman who has to jolly the audience into paying attention—a hint about why McKay bypassed the Cheney-specific title Vice President and went for the culture-wide allegation of Vice.
I usually dislike such finger-wagging, and I regret its recurrence later in the film, but McKay’s gags hit their mark so often, and his case against Cheney is so detailed and compelling, that I’m willing to say, provisionally: Fair enough. Besides, when McKay finally moves into the main body of the film, it becomes clear that he’s put more into it than laughs and scandalmongering. Vice has enough depth that it also can excite pity, fear, and a creepy, corporeal dread.
McKay interprets Cheney as a terse and fundamentally mediocre yes-man driven onward in life by his wife’s ambition, and so you might describe Vice as a satirical variation on Macbeth. Amy Adams burns coldly in the role of Lynne, Lady Cheney; a roster of right-wing moneymen, making cameo appearances at think tanks and on Fox News, helps put the time out of joint for the rising killer. And yet this tale has no witches to draw the king of shadows toward his end—none except the flaws and excesses of Cheney’s body.
By the time you reach the climax, McKay is literally staging the action above a hole where Cheney’s heart ought to be. Having suffered multiple coronary incidents over the years, Cheney received an organ transplant at age 71. But in McKay’s boldest passage of moviemaking, he elides the date of the surgery, 2012, and recapitulates several years of Cheney’s accomplishments as a grand montage sequence, centered on the bloody cavity on the operating table. Civilians and soldiers burst apart in Iraq, detainees writhe under torture, schoolchildren flee from rampaging gunmen, liars multiply unchecked on the airwaves, migrants huddle in detention, a fossil-fueled planet combusts—and those are only the public events that circle the gaping void. Also passing by in the montage are people who (in McKay’s view) were used up by the man who corroded his own heart: Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and (most grievous of all) Cheney’s daughter Mary, who found that his quiet defense of gay marriages such as hers became expendable to her sister’s political ambitions.
But let’s back up. As I reread this climactic summary, I realize that McKay is right to want to lighten the mood now and then. Before I inadvertently talk you out of watching Vice, let’s change the topic to Christian Bale.
Gossip sites have been avid to report how the sometimes recklessly self-transforming actor put on weight to play Cheney, but these news items do nothing to prepare you for the sight of a great-bellied Bale swathed in pajamas at a bathroom sink. This vision appears at a critical moment—Cheney must decide whether to accept the offer to be Bush’s running mate—and in one of the film’s subtler jokes, McKay and Bale convey his habit of deliberation by making you watch Cheney brush his teeth. He gives them a thorough scrubbing. He lowers his heavy head and spits, copiously. Then, as if you hadn’t already seen enough, he knocks back a cupful of mouthwash and gargles. McKay confines this action to a single long shot, but by the time it’s over you feel as if you’ve been close enough to the Bale-Cheney corpus to have caught the spray.
At other moments, Bale performs veritable ballets of discomfort: leaning back in satisfaction in the desk chair of a minuscule White House office and almost bumping the wall, or sinking lower stride by stride while entering Congress, as if walking into quicksand, because he’s having yet another heart attack. The best of Bale’s physicality, though, comes out in smaller gestures, which don’t so much imitate Cheney’s mannerisms as bring the character’s thoughts to the surface. The fits and starts of Cheney’s speech, the lateral sneers that bare one set of incisors, the pauses for breath that are also half-swallowed growls: These are Bale’s manifestations of a mind at once patient and brutal, wary of exposure but entirely sure of itself.
It’s the mind of a man who has no talent for flippancy—unlike his mentor Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who dazzles the young Cheney by getting away with talking dirty in public—and who expects the average person to dislike him. In another of McKay’s subtler gags, he has Cheney mumble his way through a stump speech during his first run for Congress, as if hoping that once he’s permitted his words to project a few inches into the air, he might do the safe thing and suck them back in. Lynne gets along much better with the crowd when she takes over for him, though her notion of oratorical inspiration is scarcely less ridiculous. Crying out with all the verve and conviction that Amy Adams can give her, Lynne boasts that Wyoming women aren’t unnatural, like those East Coast feminists: “We don’t burn our bras. We wear them!”
Cheney’s ultimate foil, though, as Vice has it, is George W. Bush: a man who, in Sam Rockwell’s gleeful, runaway performance, is every bit as warm, candid, garrulous, and naive as Cheney is cold, devious, taciturn, and cynical. Moviegoers who continue to bear a grudge against W. may need to work up a little compassion once they’ve seen Bale, under hooded eyes, study an eager, loose-limbed Rockwell the way a trout angler appraises his expected dinner.
And yet McKay has enough compassion of his own that he doesn’t portray Cheney as having always been so horrid. There’s a distinct moment in Vice when you see Cheney stop being a servile, quasi-buffoonish aide to Rumsfeld and turn into a hard, dangerous man. It happens at a funeral back in Wyoming, where Cheney warns his despicable father-in-law never to come near his family again. At that brief instant, you get to feel you’re on Cheney’s side, as you witness for the first time his peculiar imperviousness: a preference for operating behind a protective barrier while lobbing credible threats of massive retaliation. He seems not merely justified but admirable—after which McKay begins the long tale of how Cheney applied those same faculties to the consolidation of absolute executive power.
Vice crams so much detail about this subject into its 132 minutes, and is so determined to keep up the necessary pace for japing characterizations and comic digressions, that cracks eventually open in the surface. Topics are broached and then abandoned (remind me: What exactly happened with Valerie Plame?); new scenes start out of nowhere. McKay has the energy to carry you past these rough spots, though on a second viewing you might wonder about the material he must have cut, and wish he’d done a better job of smoothing the edits. And while McKay makes no such flubs when he integrates social-psychology research and propaganda methods into his story—here are the public-relations focus groups that helped sell the Iraq War, and the pristine blonde flamethrowers of Fox News who kept America heated up—the lessons have a village-explainer tone. Despite Naomi Watts’s uncredited turn as a Fox News talking head, these passages diverge from the celebrity footnotes of The Big Short. For one thing, they’re not funny; and if we, the movie-going public, are indeed as abased, as vitiated, as McKay’s Law implies, then it’s presumably too late for us to learn from them, anyhow.
That said, these are small complaints about a daringly large movie. Vice succeeds both as a brash, try-anything entertainment, full of outrage, sorrow, and a sense of absurdity, and as a guide to how we fell into our current predicament. A career politician, addicted to secrecy, pushed America toward autocracy when he was vice president. Now our president is a career scam artist, addicted to publicity, and the power he craves is at hand.
Poland, 1949: Two musicologists and their Communist Party–appointed minder travel the frozen countryside—villages of crumbling wooden shacks where the chickens underfoot outnumber the humans; expanses of snow void of anything except a single tree to piss against—to record people’s wailing love songs and take note of the singers’ names. The minder isn’t impressed; where he comes from, he grumbles, every drunk sings like that. But soon two truckloads of rural folk are rolling into the muddy yard of a repurposed country estate, there to try out for a new troupe that will honor the true culture of Poland’s masses and bring it to city audiences, albeit cleaned up a little.
This is how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), the arranger and conductor of the musicological team, locks eyes for the first time with Zula (Joanna Kulig) in a drafty audition room. He’s dark, lanky, iron-jawed, and brooding, with a lock of hair that droops over his vast forehead. She’s blonde, full-lipped, fiery-eyed, and carries herself with a swagger. Wiktor knows Zula isn’t really from a village and has done time in jail—and if people don’t want to hear a Polish folk song, he quickly learns, she’s just as happy to give them a number picked up from a Russian movie. No matter. Wiktor has to have Zula for the troupe. Zula has to have Wiktor. Fifteen years of mad love and misery ensue, on both sides of a divided Europe.
Cold War, it’s called: the new foray into black-and-white historicist romance by Pawel Pawlikowski, writer-director of Ida (2013). With its sexy lead actors and nostalgia for the old bohemian Paris—France is where the lovers settle for a while, and 1950s French film is where Pawlikowski finds much of his style—Cold War gives audiences a lot to swoon over. It even makes a fetish out of communist Poland—tacitly, of course, but with guarded affection. A rotten, terrifying society, you’d think; but its suffering was so noble, and its kitsch was such fun.
But to give Pawlikowski his due, he’s clever. Cold War is about people who can’t feel authentic no matter where they are, East or West; and at the same time, it’s about its own inevitable rootlessness, as symbolized by a song in Zula’s repertoire. The tune originates as a village lament, cried out by a half-starved young girl in pigtails and a ragged sweater. It turns into a lush chorale for the prancing Polish folklore troupe, then a number to be crooned in a Parisian jazz club, and finally a breathy pop song with fancy French lyrics. By that point, Zula and Wiktor know they have a home, a doomed one, only in one another; and Cold War has owned up to being an old-fashioned melodrama—a good one at that.