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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney

“VICE” My rating: A- 

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In 2014 comedy writer/director Adam McKay (a longtime partner of Will Ferrell) gave us “The Big Short,” a look at the 2008 market meltdown that featured gonzo moments like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages.     “…Short” was nominated for best picture and took home the Oscar for screenplay adaptation.

It now is clear that “The Big Short” was a test run for the narrative techniques and off-the-wall attitude that come to full flower in “Vice,” an absolutely dazzling/incendiary screen bio of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of the George W. Bush White House.

This funny/unnerving instant classic features a transformative Christian Bale (he might as well start clearing Oscar space on his mantel), a host of terrifically good supporting perfs from the likes of Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, and a seductive presentational style that’ll suck you in even if you hate the real Cheney’s guts.

An opening credit informs us that this is a true story, “or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history.  But we did our f**king best.”

In fact, writer/director McKay goes out of his way not to turn “Vice” into a ham-handed hatchet job.

For the film’s first half — as we watch Wyoming roustabout Dick (drinkin’, fightin’, D.W.I.s) straighten himself out for the woman he loves (Adams), start a family and dip his toe in the slipstream of Washington power-broking — you may find yourself admiring the kid’s drive and smarts.

By the film’s end — after Cheney has shanghaied the nation into a never-ending Middle Eastern war and done his level best to  legitimize torture — audiences will be wincing under the savagery of the McKay/Bale depiction of this consummate politician guided less by political principles than a Machiavellian appreciation of pure, raw power.

“Vice” does a pretty wonderful job of fleshing out and, yes, humanizing a potent figure who is described by one character here as “a ghost,” a man about whom most of us know nothing.

The film covers (in brief, arresting scenes) Chaney’s education under then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), who instilled in the kid a taste for the ruthless exertion of authority and brought him along when he joined the Nixon administration.

Eventually Cheny becomes the chief of staff to President Gerald Ford where he begins formulating the “unitary executive theory,” which maintains that the President, just because he is the President, can do pretty much anything he damn well wants.

Throughout this recitation we periodically  drop in on the Cheney clan, and it is as a family man that this Dick Cheney seems most human.  He’s lovable and playful with his girls; he and wife Lynne are ahead-of-their-time understanding when daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as gay.

Repeatedly we see the big man — who has heart attacks with the kind of regularity more associated with heartburn — retreating to the relatively calm and harmony of a Wyoming trout stream. (Fishing becomes a metaphor for Cheney’s canny handling of friend and foe alike.)

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