Like writer-director Adam McKay’s The Big Short, this is a mosaic black comedy about how America – and, indeed, the world – got into this mess … told in the form of a biopic of former Vice-President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), though the film walks a knife-edge and doesn’t quite decide whether he’s a sinister version of Chance the gardener from Being There or an active super-villain/Manchurian Candidate. An everyday guy (Jesse Plemons) narrates, and there’s a puzzle thread about how he relates to Cheney – my first guess was that he’d turn out to be the bloke Cheney shot while hunting (an incident which isn’t stressed here, though it’s still an astonishing moment – the victim apologised, the shooter still hasn’t) but that’s not the case. We follow Cheney, who comes from a relatively modest background, from 1963, when he’s a Yale drop-out lineman racking up DUIs and lying in his own vomit … until his future wife Lynne (Amy Adams) orders him to shape up, and starts him on his Washington ascent as ‘a servant to power’, beginning as an intern minion to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) after a casual bit of horsetrading with another intern lands him with the Republicans. The film does have more or less conventional biopic dramatised scenes about personal issues – Cheney has a history of heart problems that involve comically underplayed attacks, and is quietly (indeed, admirably) supportive of his gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) though Lynne is tight-lipped when she comes out … as it happens, it’s her sister Liz (Lily Rabe) whose political career is derailed by association with the gay marriage issue and who makes a public statement that leads to a family estrangement.
Cheney serves in various capacities in the Nixon, Reagan and Bush I administrations and takes lucrative private sector chairmanships/consultancies when there are Democrats in the White House … and a crucial realisation comes when a poll shows how unlikely he is to even get the presidential nomination (Dan Quayle scores higher) and he has to pursue other means to essentially get control of the country on behalf of literally blurry big money types, boarding the presidential ticket of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) – with intercut angling footage to show how he hooks the candidate – while reframing the traditional dead end job of Vice-President to the point when he is shadow master of the government (with a flash of Jack Kirby artwork, he is compared to Galactus), taking command during 9/11 while Bush is in the wind, and then shaping the subsequent war on terror to his own ends. It almost seems a caricature that, after 9/11, America felt obligated to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan and fight Al Qaeda when they’d much rather be somewhere else because ‘all the good targets are in Iraq’ and a firm link is made between the trumped-up speech Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) has to make to justify the Iraq war and the eventual rise of ISIS and the rolling catastrophe that has been for the world. Cheney, of course, is impossible to like – his own realisation of that is what sends him down other routes to power, and Bale’s remarkable work (under Greg Cannom makeup) doesn’t even try to show his humanity, even when he is taking a personal stand for his loved ones (seeing off his no-good father-in-law Shea Whigham), or give him points for bravery in the face of his health issues (we see him blithely eating Danish pastries, and making no effort to change his lifestyle – assuming, rightly as it happens, that he’ll be able to get through it all thanks to someone else’s sacrifice).
It would be hard to do a film like Oliver Stone’s Nixon or W about Cheney, and this is more essay-like than those … with illustrated lectures about various side issues and flights of fancy as when a conversation between the Cheneys turns into a Shakespearean conspiracy scene or a waiter (Alfred Molina) pops in to explain a menu of torture options now available. Some of the asides don’t even relate to Cheney that much, but to the culture he fostered and which endures into the current trainwreck administration – the rebranding of ‘estate tax’ as ‘death tax’ to get poor people to vote for tax breaks for the very rich (we see Whoopi Goldberg, of all people, unhelpfully shilling for this), plus weasel words like ’climate change’ or ‘enhanced interrogation’. A focus group shows up the divides and the ignorance of the average voter – McKay doesn’t let the little guy off the hook for allowing the big bads to get away with it – and plays through the end credits to suggest how the world Cheney made has straggled on to the MAGA-vs-libtard era. With Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Don McManus as wily satanic lawyer David Addington, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford.