There’s a very good movie to made about the life of Dick Cheney, the powerful uber-Zelig of the GOP and the stealth architect of so many of our past and still-current disasters. “Vice” isn’t that movie. I’m not sure it’s a movie at all. If writer-director Adam McKay were to act out Cheney’s Wikipedia entry as a full-body interpretive dance while following every link and cutting to random GIFs and YouTube videos, you might have an approximation of what awaits you in the theater. This is a story that needs to be told, but McKay turns out to be precisely the wrong man to tell it. By comparison, Oliver Stone is a model of sober restraint.
“Vice” opens on Christmas Day.
The cast can’t be faulted. Well, maybe a little. Swaddled in the padding of a gone-to-seed high school jock, Christian Bale plays Cheney across five decades of private and public life as a bland, amoral grayface whose sole interest is control. The charismatic star is tasked with playing an uncharismatic man, and at times he succeeds too well; it doesn’t help that there’s virtually no character development across the 132 minutes of “Vice.” Once the movie’s Cheney finds his feet after a wasted youth, he’s a shark on a direct course for power; whenhe gets it, we lose.
Amy Adams plays his wife, Lynne Cheney, and, again, it’s a worthy performance that doesn’t have anywhere dramatically interesting to go. You come away from “Vice” remembering the scene stealers: Steve Carell’s gleeful, mean Donald Rumsfeld, a brief glimpse of Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and, more than anyone, Sam Rockwell’s gloriously obtuse George W. Bush, a child wandering into a playing field of hard-charging men.
“Vice” follows Cheney from his early days as Rumsfeld’s man in the Nixon administration through his spells as chief of staff to Gerald R. Ford (an amiable Bill Camp) and defense secretary to the first George Bush (John Hillner), and closer and closer to the heart of power, unseen by almost everyone. “Beware the quiet man,” we’re warned by a narrator (Jesse Plemons) early on, and the story this movie tells is of a Machiavellian drone quietly plotting his next five moves while everyone else in the room is yelling about what just happened.
There’s a lesson there for a filmmaker seeking to convince his audience instead of beating them into submission under the guise of entertainment. McKay first found success making grand idiot comedies with Will Ferrell and then stepped to the grown-ups’ table with “The Big Short” (2015), his tripartite flaying of the people responsible for the 2008 economic crisis and a movie which handed Bale and Carell rather more complicated roles.
“The Big Short” was celebrated by critics and audiences for its high-handed breaking of the fourth wall, the most memorable instance being when McKay brings on actress Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain subprime mortgages. That hyperactive strategy was so well-received that the director has gone twice as hard on it this time. Ironically, this makes “Vice” three times worse.
I’ll give you an example. George W. Bush has asked Cheney to be his vice president, but the wily Cheney stalls, asking to lead the search. The movie cuts to repeated shots of an angler reeling in and landing a fish — we get it the first time, it’s heavy-handed the second, by the fifth, oh boy.
I’ll give you another example: That mysterious narrator — whose identity will eventually become clear — explains the Unitary Executive Theory by which if the president does it, it’s not wrong; Cheney’s face lights up as he sees his avenue to power, and the film cuts to a shot of a lion bringing down a gazelle. Or another: We’re told that Cheney’s strategy is akin to stacking one teacup atop another atop another, and “Vice” returns to a literal visual of the tottering porcelaintower again and again.
This is short-attention-span cleverness masquerading as depth, and after a while the headstands and jazz hands obscure the movie’s main point: That by the time he ascended to the vice presidency in 2001, Dick Cheney was running the country as a “shadow” president — picking the Bush cabinet, getting daily intelligence reports before his boss, calling the shots in the aftermath of 9/11, pushing the United States into Iraq and accidentally helping to create ISIS in the bargain. Ultimately, the most damning evidence in “Vice” (all of which is on the record) just flashes by in a slurry of cue-card catch phrases (“extraordinary rendition,” “enemy combatant,” “Gitmo”) and cutaways to . . . TV’s “Survivor”?
“Vice” has its rewards. As an all-you-can-eat buffet about one invisible man’s impact on American history, the movie encourages a moviegoer to seek out smaller, richer meals on the subject. And McKay’s shotgun cynicism, while shallow enough to tickle the bros, isn’t unwarranted. Without Dick Cheney, we’d arguably still have the Fairness Doctrine, we’d be ahead on climate change, we wouldn’t have gone into Iraq, we wouldn’t have tortured detainees — the list is a long and woeful one.
The most telling scene in ”Vice” comes early, when a still-young Cheney earnestly asks his mentor Rumsfeld, “What do we believe?” Rumsfeld just laughs and laughs and laughs, and Cheney listens and says nothing. Beware the quiet man. Beware, too, the filmmaker who doesn't know when to shut up.
Written and directed by Adam McKay. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons. At Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, suburbs. 132 minutes. R (language, some violent content).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.