In the Oscar-winning The Big Short, a star-studded examination of the financial skullduggery that triggered the 2007/8 economic crash, writer/director Adam McKay was praised for demystifying stodgy and distinctly non-cinematic concepts like sub-prime mortgages in an entertaining way, even if his main tactic seemed to be to pulling a handbrake on the narrative and cutting to a scene of Margot Robbie in a bathtub. For his follow-up Vice, McKay has tasked himself with demystifying a stodgy and distinctly non-cinematic-looking politician, albeit one who wielded a disproportionate amount of influence in the volatile aftermath of 9/11 (enough shadowy power, the film posits, to “change the course of history for millions of lives”).
The result is an enthusiastically disrespectful biopic, and while it might not fully succeed in revealing the psychology of Dick Cheney, the veteran political operator who came to renewed prominence as George W Bush’s running mate and subsequent VP in 2001, it does at least illuminate some of the murkier chapters of his zigzag path to power, from drunk college dropout to filthy-rich Halliburton CEO.
Christian Bale was previously a billion-dollar Batman but thanks to a steady diet of egg-fried rice and some roly-poly prosthetics he spends much of Vice looking more like the Penguin: a waddling, craven, cold-eyed schemer. Even when we first glimpse him in 1963, the 22-year-old Cheney is already a beefy, belligerent boozer scratching out a living as a lineman in Wyoming.
It takes an ultimatum from his despairing wife Lynne (a typically precise performance from Amy Adams under a series of unflattering wigs) to get him back on a political track. Within five years, Cheney – now with a Better Call Saul hairline – has dried out enough to become a Washington intern learning the dark arts of opportunistic DC realpolitik from cheerfully aggressive congressman Donald “Rummie” Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).
Previously a billion-dollar Batman, thanks to a steady diet of egg-fried rice and some roly-poly prosthetics Christian Bale spends much of Vice looking more like the Penguin
As the master and eager pupil embark on a series of political obfuscations and machinations, a funky wah-wah soundtrack rises to meet them and then the penny drops: McKay wants to put you in mind of a heist movie, because these guys are out to take everything they can get and the security system they are determined to circumvent is the Constitution.
With its strutting, swashbuckling rhythms, Vice sometimes feels like Goodfellas for policy wonks. While either hitting or skewering most of the standard biopic beats, McKay reserves the right to swerve into yet more Big Short-style comedic asides or bombard the audience with a barrage of news footage. Folksy first-person narration from everyman Jesse Plemons helps hold everything together but the sense of clamour and chaos, of reality being unravelled and rewritten, seems deliberate.
It feels ironic that Cheney’s chequered political apprenticeship, strained relationships with his family and personal attempts to get elected could perhaps have provided enough material for a boilerplate biopic even if Bush had never gifted him an unexpected career comeback (something acknowledged in one of the movie’s most audacious jokes, a great gag that would not feel out of place in a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof).
But seek Cheney out Bush did, and McKay makes their courtship dance the cornerstone of his thesis, as the jellybean-chomping candidate – almost made charming by Sam Rockwell – blithely agrees to give the vice-president’s office unprecedented latitude. From then on, the story of how Cheney unfurled tentacles into US foreign policy and military strategy might be a little more familiar but the sheer arrogance and ruthlessness with which he orchestrates his power-grab feels like a slap in the face. After that, much of the film’s impishness drains away in readiness for McKay’s final gut-punch, an unexpected flourish that will leave audiences angry, if not necessarily for the right reasons.
Vice is in cinemas from January 25