There’s a moment about midway through Vice where a diffident Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), still some years away from the full flowering of self-regard, haltingly asks his White House boss Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What do we…believe in?” There’s a long pause, and then Rumsfeld explodes into laughter, a barking-hyena chortle that carries down the hallway long after he’s shut his office door.
The answer to that question — if it exists at all — isn’t really anywhere to be found in Adam McKay’s slick, wildly meta, and occasionally too-clever portrait of the most influential and easily least understood figure to ever hold the nation’s second-highest post. Instead, the movie offers a sort of speculative shadow biography of an obscure also-ran who somehow rose from sodden mediocrity (Cheney flunked out of Yale, where he mostly seemed to major in alcohol) to the highest halls of executive power — and did it all, a title card intones, “like a ghost.”
The key, as McKay sees it, was the faithful Lynne (Amy Adams). Lady Macbeth in a polyblend, she drove her husband with steely, single-minded resolve — a triumph of low expectations and high cholesterol that succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. And the movie has an impressive bag of tricks at its disposal, including Sam Rockwell’s Ivy League cowboy George W. Bush; Tyler Perry’s hapless but dignified Colin Powell; and Jesse Plemons as a sort of folksy omniscient narrator.
The shrewd, relentless winkiness of McKay’s filmmaking style may have worked better, though, for breaking down subprime mortgages in The Big Short than it does chronicling a deadly misbegotten war. What remains then is the cipher at the center of Vice: the Man Who Wasn’t There, and probably never will be. B+