Dick Cheney biopic Vice sees Christian Bale pack on pounds to play former US vice-president
Christian Bale is perhaps best known for his portraits of two questionable men in power: wealthy bachelor Patrick Bateman and American psycho Bruce Wayne.
In Vice he brings his chilly method-acting style to bear on what may be his most unpleasant creation to date: former US vice-president Dick Cheney.
Director Adam McKay’s sort-of biopic takes an irreverent, often-angry swing at one of the 21st century’s most influential political figures, and Bale indulges his trademark love of physical transformation by packing on the awards-baiting pounds.
The actor also affects Cheney’s cipher-like persona, playing a man so bland that few would immediately assume he was puppeteering the George W. Bush presidency and orchestrating a so-called War on Terror that would cost thousands of lives.
The Bush administration was in office for two terms between 2001–2009. (Supplied: Entertainment One)
“The vice-president is mostly a symbolic job,” Cheney says to a gormless, slack-jawed Bush (played by a goofy Sam Rockwell) over a pre-presidential campaign lunch. “However, if we came to a different understanding, I can handle the more mundane jobs: overseeing bureaucracy, military, energy, and foreign policy.”
Vice is loaded with such winking dialogue, gleefully fabricating backroom political summits with plenty of dramatic license.
Its fable-like narration, delivered by a suburban grunt (Jesse Plemons) who will become almost cosmically aligned with his vice-president, gives the story a Drunk History feel, while McKay, as he did in 2015’s The Big Short, flips between satirical bombast and a barely concealed sense of liberal righteousness.
The director follows Cheney across half a century of American history, like some sinister Forrest Gump, opening on the hard-drinking, flannelette-shirt-wearing Yale dropout of 1960s Wyoming, before tracking his ascent through Washington’s corrupt halls of power in the ensuing turbulent decades.
Spurred on by his ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), her blonde bob hardening into a battle helmet of hairspray, Cheney rises through the Republican Party ranks, serving as a junior staffer under the scheming Donald Rumsfeld — played by a toothy, maniacal Steve Carell — then later as Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford, before becoming Bush senior’s Secretary of Defense.
Amy Adams plays former Second Lady of the United States Lynne Cheney. (Supplied: Entertainment One)
In comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, McKay proved himself an astute chronicler of a certain brand of blithely entitled American masculinity, and he channels this pedigree into something altogether more terrifying here — just as his scatological humour pivoted to indignant commentary on the financial crisis in The Big Short.
Vice is at its best when framing political horror as absurdist comedy: a fake-out end-credits scene mid-movie has the impish quality of Monty Python, while a Whitehouse dick joke that shows the masturbatory, homophobic nature of men in office is vintage McKay.
Precariously juggling these asides with drama and heavy-handed scare tactics, McKay flashes back and forth between time periods like the channel-surfing couch zombies he can’t help himself from berating.
He and editor Harvey Corwin splice fake Fox News shows (featuring a cameo from Naomi Watts),YouTube footage, infographics and beer commercials into the drama, mixing ostensibly high and low culture to evoke 21st century American life in all of its cacophonous splendour.
Steve Carell (left) plays former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (Supplied: Entertainment One)
McKay gives us the War on Terror as focus-grouped PR triumph, while Bale plays Cheney as a master deceiver, expediently manipulating public temperament to his own design.
The VP even seems to regard his own daughter Mary’s (Alison Pill) coming out as an opportunity for political spin, comforting her with all the tenderness of a cardboard standee.
Cheney, who indifferently owns his acts of atrocity like he’s recalling anecdotes from a college baseball game, proves considerably more resistant to comedic assault than the childlike Bush, despite Bale’s hilarious ability to summon sociopathic tics from the abyss with a deadly straight face.
The film similarly struggles to reconcile its impulses toward laughter and outrage.
McKay trips up when he eschews his absurdist tendencies for browbeating lessons, condescending toward consumers of the supposedly vacuous pop culture that he insists serves as political distraction.
Then again, confusion might be Vice’s master plan.
Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney included perfecting the 46th vice-president’s distinctive monotone. (Supplied: Entertainment One)
By tracing clear lines through the chaos to the rise of Donald Trump and his neo-conservative circus, McKay suggests a modern America where everything — politics, war, peak TV — is just indistinguishable grist for the 24-hour content cycle.
In a telling post-credits scene set in a focus group, two political enemies physically squabble and hurl cliched epithets about “libtards” and “the orange Cheeto”, while a twenty-something woman nonchalantly yearns for the next Fast and the Furious instalment.
“What do we believe?”, the young, relatively naive Cheney asks Rumsfeld early in the film, to which the future Secretary of Defense simply breaks out laughing — Carell cackling and hooting ’til he’s gasping for air.
For better and worse, Vice provokes a similar response. The constant noise can make it hard to care.
Vice is in cinemas from December 26.