The world inhabited by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the awards-laden TV series Veep is, of course, a comic exaggeration, albeit one with a central premise rooted in reality. Traditionally, the role of US vice president has been largely ceremonial, that of an ineffectual figure wielding little (if any) influence. But between 2001 and 2008 Dick Cheney was, to all intents and purposes, the power behind George W Bush’s throne.
A Washington player since the late 1960s, Cheney rose through the ranks from an internship in the office of Illinois congressman Donald Rumsfeld to appointments in both the Nixon and Ford administrations, and had all but retired from politics before answering the call to be Bush’s running mate. Writer/director Adam McKay’s savage and satirical film chronicles Cheney’s entire career, although it’s the VP years that provide the heft of a sinister true-life drama of Shakespearean proportions.
It’s evident in the pillow talk between Christian Bale’s veep and his very own Lady Macbeth (wife Lynne, played by Amy Adams), in his shadowy plotting with a Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) now elevated to defense secretary, and in his intermittent asides delivered straight to camera with a cold stare. It could all be passed off as nothing more than archetypal cinema villainy, were it not for the fact that the events depicted actually happened.
We’re introduced to Cheney minutes after the first plane hits the Twin Towers on 9/11; with Bush indisposed reading a story to elementary schoolchildren, the president’s number two assumes the mantle of de facto commander-in-chief while all but shutting National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell out of the decision-making process. Once his tight hold of the reins has been established, he doesn’t let go for the remainder of his two terms in office.
This is not the first time the still-living individuals mentioned above have been portrayed on screen, but McKay’s film is a far cry from Oliver Stone’s relatively straightforward 2008 Bush biopic, W., and its emphasis on the president’s struggle with his family’s legacy. Here, George junior (Sam Rockwell) is relegated to a supporting role in the avaricious power games of (as the introductory caption has it) “one of the most secretive leaders in recent history”.
Having stalked the corridors of corporate power while away from the political spotlight, Cheney’s return to Washington sees him adopting business strategies to help sell a Republican wet dream of a presidency to the electorate. These range from the cynical renaming of taxes and policies to make them less or more palatable, to the infinitely more contentious suggestion that the administration’s laissez-faire fear-mongering led indirectly to the creation of Isis.
As with The Big Short, his 2015 Oscar winner about the US financial crisis, McKay employs a series of gimmicks that both drive the narrative and act as fanciful sidebars or footnotes. A false ending and credits-roll midway through the movie teasingly suggests what might have been had Cheney not returned to the White House under Bush, and a blackly comic restaurant scene in which the VP and Rumsfeld are shown ordering post-9/11 torture options off a menu could have been a self-contained skit from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
McKay’s most audacious piece of trickery, though, is the use of a “narrator” in the form of an Iraq War veteran and Ordinary Joe played by Jesse Plemons. His personal connection to Cheney remains a puzzle until late in the movie, and is then revealed with a brilliantly executed jolt that will have audiences gasping. Some will argue that the director’s showboating undermines his overall intentions, and Vice is an undeniably divisive film; take your pick between bold and important exposé, or smug liberal propaganda.
What’s inarguable is the calibre of the lead performances: Carell’s Rumsfeld is razor-sharp and manipulative beneath a facade of twisted humour and locker-room language; Rockwell’s Bush is suitably wide-eyed and willing to go with the flow wherever it might lead; while Adams’s steely and driven Lynne Cheney is as ruthless a matriarch as Angela Lansbury in the revered 1962 conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
Most praiseworthy, though, is Bale’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated interpretation of Cheney himself, barely recognisable under prosthetic make-up that genuinely looks like the pallid flesh of a man in his late 60s. The mannerisms, the speech patterns, his entire gait are all utterly convincing, but it’s the lack of expression save for those piercing eyes that continue to haunt long after the film has ended. You’ll either end up hiding in a cave, or voting for him.
Vice is released in cinemas on Friday 25 January