In taking on the story of Dick Cheney, the apparently unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider turned Vice Presidential master of the universe, Adam McKay seeks to shed light on the breathtaking constitutional chicanery which saw the executive branch of the American government vastly increase its own power whilst at the same time enormously enriching those in power who hid behind the lightning rod figurehead of George W Bush.
There’s no denying there are some remarkable transformative performances on show here, with Sam Rockwell and Amy Adams in particular on excellent form. However, for each pin-point portrayal, there are others which strike a more off-key note. Tyler Perry’s Colin Powell is atrocious while Steve Carrell occasionally struggles to keep Donald Rumsfeld’s inner Michael Scott under wraps. Bale, of course, has garnered most of the headlines but the truth is those forty or so pounds he’s piled on are doing most of the heavy lifting for him in a role that requires little more from him than to stare and breathe heavily through his nose. It’s a performance which shouldn’t merit consideration for an award save perhaps in the context of a state fair.
The magically light touch McKay brought to the high finance/ low profile scandal of “The Big Short” deserts him here as the movie comes across as smug and self-satisfied as its subject and lead actor’s performance. Jesse Plemon’s a poor substitute for Margot Robbie’s interstitial bathtub tutorials but he does what he can to bridge the gaps in the narrative.
There’s a gleefulness in how McKay heaps on the corruption and outrage with such abandon that it quickly becomes noise, blunting the horror of the cynical, black-hearted venality which has gripped Washington politics since the days of the Reagan administration. Although it does a better job of providing insight into its subject than “The Front Runner” did, it shares a similar lack of direct critique, preferring instead to revel in the pantomime amusement of seeing (in)famous figures recreated by the cast of well-known names and ticking off a select list of scandals and events which all took place within living memory.
For all its fancy footwork and big swings, it’s only in its closing moments that the film really manages to land a punch as Bale’s Cheney breaks the fourth wall and admonishes the audience for blaming him for having the courage to do what they wanted but were too cowardly to do and reminding us all that we get the leaders we deserve.