"VICE" — 2½ stars — Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Tyler Perry; R (language and some violent imagery); in general release; running time: 132 minutes
Dick Cheney may not be the anti-Christ, but he'd probably give him a ride to the airport. That seems to be the main takeaway from "Vice," director Adam McKay's scathing attempt to excoriate the former U.S. vice president.
As "Vice" opens, the titles inform us that while McKay's film is a "true story," Cheney is also a famously secretive man, so the filmmakers just had to do their best to put everything together. The translation is clear: Take "Vice" with a Bonneville Raceway-sized dose of salt.
The narrative toggles back and forth between Cheney's rise to political power and the dramatic events of his time in the Bush administration, primarily connected to the 9/11 attacks. Images of him getting pulled over for drunk driving in the early 1960s are juxtaposed against him calling the shots in a White House bunker after the airplanes hit the World Trade Center.
Piece by piece, McKay assembles a narrative that follows Cheney (played by a fully immersed Christian Bale) through his time as a congressional intern under future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), as White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) and as a Wyoming congressman supported by his long-suffering wife Lynne (Amy Adams).
Once his own presidential aspirations are quashed, Cheney eventually moves into the private sector as CEO of Halliburton, only to get drawn back into the political fight as future President George W. Bush's running mate in 2000.
Beneath a dark comic tone, the message is the same: Washington motivations are universally cynical, selfish and manipulative — or at least they are for Republicans. We never know what the motivations of Democrats are, because aside from a pair of fleeting real-life news clips — one that shows Hillary Clinton endorsing the invasion of Iraq — the left side of the aisle is completely absent from the screen.
But at the same time, "Vice" never manages to offer a satisfactory explanation of why Cheney does what he does. Early on, he's aimless, hanging power lines in Wyoming after getting kicked out of Yale, and when he makes it to Washington, his choice of political party feels almost arbitrary. "Vice" wants Cheney to be the villain, but until a fourth-wall breaking monologue at the end of the movie, the character remains opaque.
Instead, McKay tries to connect Cheney to most every historical tragedy of the last 20 years, blaming him for everything from the rise of ISIS to the housing crisis, and finishing the film with a dramatic montage that feels like a propaganda film. Even the one thing "Vice" seems to allow as a positive — Cheney's support of his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill) — eventually just becomes more ammunition.
Bale's performance is the film's primary bright spot, blending perfectly to a tone that seems to emulate last year's "I, Tonya" in its antagonistic sense of humor. Adams is solid as Lynne, and in his limited screen time, Sam Rockwell plays George W. Bush as the kind of cartoon caricature pop culture reflected in the mid-2000s.
Unfortunately, as with many politically charged films, audiences will likely react to "Vice" along party lines, as it validates the frustrations of one side and inspires the frustrations of the other. The film's production is just good enough to make you wish it had been applied to a more thoughtful examination of such a polarizing character. Instead, "Vice" just feels like the cinematic equivalent of throwing rotten tomatoes at a stump speech.
"Vice" is rated R for intermittent profanity, as well as some fleeting images of torture and interrogation, along with some associated male nudity.