Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell
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…more than a distaff biopic though, it is also a hugely enjoyable romp, taking sly pot-shots at many recent political figures, and a sweeping essay on the disease in the American body politic.
The historian’s dictum that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is psychologically astute. In Adam McKay’s masterful dissection of the machinations of the political career of one-time Vice President Dick Cheney, a different kind of approach to power is illuminated. Cheney became the ultimate White House insider, and he accumulated untold and world-changing power by stealth, and all without really being held up to public scrutiny.
McKay’s film is more than a distaff biopic though, it is also a hugely enjoyable romp, taking sly pot-shots at many recent political figures, and a sweeping essay on the disease in the American body politic. In particular, he points to the way Cheney (and even more backroom-y legal figures) promoted the highly dubious doctrine of Unitary Power. Once they had used this to give the incumbent President emperor-like divine powers, they used it to make Cheney the ultimate puppet master. In this, he was ably helped by his wife Lynne (a towering co-lead performance from Amy Adams); a thwarted power-seeker with a rampant Lady Macbeth complex.
At the very centre of this is the perfect performance by Christian Bale. It is more than just ‘method’ (though he looks to have put on a damaging amount of weight for the role), it is an acting tour de force. Even though Cheney – when looked at coolly – is some kind of monster, Bale manages somehow to take us along with him as he hoodwinks and connives his way to the top.
During his long career Cheney interns for the potty-mouthed Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell once again on fine form) in the Nixon era, and then totally reels in the hopeless-but-lucky George W. Bush. All of this makes for a long film, but it is so skilfully paced that we don’t feel the time go by. There are many great set piece scenes – especially those between Cheney and Bush (Sam Rockwell playing just this side of moronic) – but it would be invidious to single out any one.
It is important that the film can be consumed with little or no in-depth knowledge of this grubby era, and McKay finds a clever device to play voice of god and explain as we go. He honed this ability to explain complex forms of hoodwinking in his delightful study of swindling finance The Big Short. This film is even better. Of course, it is not a bundle of laughs if you are on the receiving end of some of these American foreign policies. At one point, a caption tells us that 600,000 (innocent) civilians died in the ill-conceived Iraq war. For a moment it wipes the smile off our faces and almost makes one feel guilty about the laughs we have had along the way. All said and done, this is one helluva film.