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Oscars: Christian Bale Leaps Into the Lead Actor Race With Adam McKay’s Sobering ‘Vice’

’Tis the season for latter-year revelations. With Adam McKay’s new film “Vice,” a follow-up to his 2015 Oscar winner “The Big Short,” a major one has landed, though it’s hardly a surprise: Christian Bale might be in line to receive his second Academy Award to date, for his uncanny portrayal of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Any glance at the film’s trailer made it clear that the 44-year-old actor, who previously won the supporting actor prize for 2010’s “The Fighter,” had undergone one of his famous transformations for this production, packing on the pounds, shaving back his hair, sporting makeup effects to bridge the gaps between actor and portly politico. It was a true immersion. I talked to him on Variety’s “Playback” podcast the day after he wrapped nearly a year ago, in fact, and he was happy to shake the lingering effects of the performance at the time. But a trailer is one thing. To see Bale in all his glory as the Machiavellian Cheney for two-plus hours is another thing altogether.

The film packs an infuriating punch as McKay writes history with lightning yet again. The question for pretty much anyone that he, production company Plan B and distributor Annapurna hopes to engage with this material over the holidays is whether we’re ready to dissect it all. Is the move-going audience — indeed, are Academy voters — ready to take stock of all this chapter in history with the depressing news glowing up at us from our mobile devices on a daily basis? It would be a hell of a time to hand someone an Oscar for portraying this particular man, and that takes nothing from Bale’s brilliant work. By the same token, “Vice” could be argued as the most urgent and important film in the race this year. One just wonders if the stomach is there for it.

We’ll survey the lead actor category more in-depth in an upcoming column, but it’s safe to say Bale joins “A Star Is Born” multi-hyphenate Bradley Cooper on the top tier of the competition. If the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. accepts Annapurna’s comedy placement for “Vice” (they may well, but this is far less of a comedy than “The Big Short”), then the two actors will likely split the Golden Globe prizes, which will send them headlong into phase two of the season.

But Bale isn’t the full story here, of course. It’s an inspired ensemble McKay has once again pulled together, from Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne (a Lady Macbeth-like figure) to Steve Carell’s irreverent Donald Rumsfeld to Oscar winner Sam Rockwell’s clueless George W. Bush. They and others should help secure a Screen Actors Guild bid for best ensemble, and Adams ought to be along for much of the awards season journey with Bale as well.

Beyond that, it’s an excellently crafted piece of work. Within the scenes, editor Hank Corwin wrangles what must have been a ton of footage into the kaleidoscope of a mysterious personality. That work along with Nicholas Britell’s delicate score and Greig Fraser’s intimate photography really take you straight into Cheney’s beating, failing heart, and they’re likely to pick up their share of Academy support.

On the whole, “Vice” is quite a sobering entry in the ongoing 2018 canon. It will be interesting to see how viewers and voters alike take to a movie that simply leaves you feeling like crap. But that’s also kind of the point. No one gets off easy here. It’s an unflinching analysis. And in the film’s final moments, culpability is quite pointedly assigned.

Enjoy the ride home from this one.

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