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The 400-Word Review: Vice

Adam McKay's biography of Dick Cheney is excellently made — and far more interesting than you might expect.

Photo by Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures

Director and writer Adam McKay moved from comedy into drama in the way that a college kid moves from the dorms to an apartment — sure, the neighborhood changed, but he still has all the same stuff.

That’s certainly not to say that McKay isn’t thriving in his more serious work, however. “The Big Short,” an explainer of the late-aughts financial crisis that was as defiant as it was smart, announced (clumsily) that the filmmaker has some things to say. And his follow-up, “Vice,” is an improvement on the model, a deft and witty biography of a man that no one really wanted to know more about.

By applying a sketch writer’s mind and comedian’s tool box to weighty matters, he’s already become quite good. If he ever picks a fully resonant subject, the resulting film will be a stone-cold classic.

“Vice,” however, is partially defined by the unappealing nature of its central subject. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is viewed less as a human being and more as an arch-conservative cypher, a being comprised solely of ambition and Reagan-era economics. Yet McKay finds ... well, not quite humanity, but certainly personality in Cheney, framing his entire career as a curious experiment in power for power’s sake.

Early on, Cheney (Christian Bale) asks mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What is it we believe in, exactly?” Rumsfeld promptly laughs and leaves the room. That’s the last moment that Cheney wonders about any mission other than keeping and consolidating a strong place among Washington’s elite; while he has moments of seemingly genuine emotion in defense of his wife (Amy Adams) and is unendingly fond of his youngest daughter (Alison Pill), he’s mainly here for the status.

The film has a narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose identity isn’t immediately disclosed, so I won’t spoil it here. When the reveal comes, though, it’s a quiet — yet perfect — illustration of the subject’s character. Decisions like this are where McKay shines; in another key moment, lacking a window on a pivotal conversation between husband and wife, he has Bale and Adams switch to Shakespeare for a while in a brilliant bit of substitution.

Ultimately, McKay makes Dick Cheney something bordering on interesting — itself a staggering feat. This is no effort to find the man behind the scowling statesman; rather, it’s biography in pursuit of better understanding the world around the subject. It’s a bit remarkable.

My Rating: 9/10

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