FROM ROUGHNECK TO STATESMAN: The most intriguing questions of “Vice” are not the “what,” or even the “who,” but the “how.”

Picture your reaction if, in 2000, someone told you that Christian Bale, the dude who’d just played Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” would in a few short years be wearing heavy makeup and 45 extra pounds starring as Dick Cheney in a likely Best Picture contender.

Oh, also imagine your reaction if someone explained that Cheney — known as a shrewd Washington operator even before a callow rich-kid president unwittingly made him the most powerful vice president in history — would churn up a trillion-dollar Iraq invasion based on false intelligence. That thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, would die on this pretext; that White House lawyers would argue for legal torture; that the ensuing political vacuum would feed terrorist networks in Iraq and Syria; and that an ongoing refugee crisis would spill into Europe, threatening the viability of NATO and the European Union, and the very future of Western-style democracy.


You’d be like, “Wait, who made that Darth Vader sumbitch emperor?” at which point — time-traveling to 2019 — you would have to say, here, watch this daft, dark, occasionally dadaistic comedy. It’s called “Vice,” and it’s going to explain a lot about why the future is an incoherent mess of war, debt, infighting and minority-rule government. It’s also low-key hilarious, a worthy follow from writer/director Adam McKay to his excellent 2015 Great Recession drama/explainer, “The Big Short.” Title cards announce early on that the script is as true as he could make it, given that the film is tackling one of the most secretive leaders in recent history, and a special thanks near the bottom of the end credits acknowledges all the journalists who covered that administration. Elections have consequences! Even those elections in which Al Gore won a half-million more votes than George W. Bush. (USA, LOL.)

Bale’s Cheney begins as a surly roughneck who in the ‘60s nearly drunk-drove himself out of his marriage to Lynn Cheney (Amy Adams), a Machiavellian power broker in her own right. Kicked out of Yale, he returned home to Wyoming and was pushing 30 by the time he clawed his way to Washington (via the University of Wisconsin) and linked up with a brash, voluble mentor in Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). They stayed close in the Nixon and Ford administrations; Cheney was elected to the House during the Reagan years and under Bush I became Secretary of Defense. He wasn’t happy about not removing Saddam Hussein from power in 1991, and by the time Bush’s older son was scrambling to respond to 9/11, they both had personal scores to settle with Iraq.


This is all recent enough history that the most intriguing questions of “Vice” are not the “what,” or even the “who,” but the “how.” How did Cheney go from a relatively staid mid-’90s life of running Halliburton to breaking the world and piping no-bid contracts to Halliburton to tape it back together? “Vice” supposes a Cheney who’s almost as surprised as we are that the cards landed as they did. Before the Secret Service wryly nicknamed him “Angler,” Cheney was a patient schemer, one who took on the grey, anonymous slog of government homework. In the candidate George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) he found an empty vessel: someone unconcerned with minutiae, who had coasted long enough on his family name and charisma that he was willing to cede the details to this quiet, soft-spoken elder statesman. Of course, we know what’s in the details.

McKay’s filmmaking style tilts flamboyant at times, with a flavor not too far afield from a Michael Moore documentary. In “Vice,” you’ll get cutaways to news footage, twists in structure and narration, a full-on mid-film credits sequence, plus diagrams and cartoons and a Shakespearean dialogue and a broken fourth wall that will help make Bale an Oscar contender. Amid all that, one of the most memorable scenes of “Vice” takes place in the Cheneys’ bathroom after Dick has first met with Dubya. Lynne wants an assurance that he won’t be Bush’s veep. Dick stands at the sink, brushing his teeth, thinking. You see Bale’s paunch and his heavy chin. He is slow to reply. When he does, he tells her simply that he’s never seen anything like Bush before. And continues brushing his teeth. If you’d told Dick Cheney in 2000 that he was about to make himself emperor, he wouldn’t have blinked.