Just what we all wanted under the Christmas tree: a Dick Cheney movie.

Though it may not sound terribly sexy, or season-appropriate, writer-director Adam McKay’s “Vice,” which opens nationwide Christmas Day, is a smart, funny and fascinating piece of filmmaking.

The premise is pretty straightforward: the rise of Cheney, George W. Bush’s vice president, from college party boy to major player on the global stage.

But the storytelling methods employed by McKay are wickedly clever. A barrage of characters and quick-cutting visual asides make for a fast-paced frenzy of a film that will generate a good bit of post-theater discussions and, for better or worse, stoke the flames of right vs. left.

Uh oh. I buried the lead.

I should have started by telling you this: Christian Bale is mind-blowingly amazing in the lead role. Let’s give him the Oscar right now.

Yes, Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney. Yes, the wiry ex-boxer of “The Fighter,” the skin-and-bones sufferer of “The Machinist,” the svelte crime-fighter in the Bat Suit plays the hefty, lumbering, balding, snarling Cheney from his 20s to his 60s.

Bale gained a ton of weight, slapped on some prosthetics and utterly inhabits the character. We follow him through his marriage to Republican striver Lynne Cheney, his years as Donald Rumsfeld’s protege, his rise to White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, to U.S. congressman, to secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush, to CEO of multinational behemoth Halliburton and ultimately to VP for Bush’s son.

For young Cheney, failing out of Yale was followed by two DUIs. But he picked himself up, rose through the political ranks, and considered a run for the presidency himself. As vice president, he put his Machiavellian skills to use as a power player, especially when pushing for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

McKay covers it all. And more. Along the way, Cheney suffers five heart attacks and eventually receives a heart transplant. (Ironically, McKay had a heart attack of his own after filming was completed.)

McKay, who made his name as the director of comedies (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers”), already proved his more serious chops in 2015 with “The Big Short.” He somehow transformed Michael Lewis’ weighty book about the subprime mortgage debacle into a riveting film (and won an Oscar for his screenplay).

“Vice” is very much in “The Big Short” tradition. There is a narrator (Jesse Plemons) to guide us, along with too-many-to-count drop-in characters and archival snippets. Naomi Watts plays a cable news anchor who talks directly to the audience to explain the film’s finer points, while Alfred Molina, as a waiter, hilariously reads off “specials” that actually provide a blueprint for skirting the laws of governing.

On the downside, a scene of Lynne and Dick Cheney in bed, engaging in a kind of faux-Shakespearean foreplay, doesn’t work, and McKay oversteps when he blames Cheney for many of the ills facing us today (cut to the California wildfires). McKay conducted gobs of research, but we never quite crack the nut of the inner Cheney. Perhaps it is uncrackable.

And while the film prosecutes the former vice president, in a sense, it does not entirely eviscerate him. “Vice” is not a Michael Moore-like total slam-job. Cheney is shown to be a loving father to his two daughters, Mary and Liz (Alison Pill and Lily Rabe). In an emotional moment when a teenage Mary comes out to her parents as gay, Cheney does not go all right-wing reactionary on her. Instead, he hugs her and tells her that he loves her no matter what.

McKay’s casting is inspired. Amy Adams is Lynne Cheney, Steve Carrell is Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell is George W. Bush, Tyler Perry is Colin Powell.

All are terrific, but it’s Bale who is awe-inspiring. With every grunt, every exhale, every slight turn of the head, he makes us believe. The film is over the top at times, but his performance is never a caricature. He is the quiet, solid center in the midst of the mayhem. Beware the quiet ones.

 

Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.