Question: Define the concept of “Unitary Executive.”

Answer: The president of the United States probably can shoot someone in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Keep that in mind as we continue. But the vice president?

Maybe you thought he was dead or maybe you never thought of him at all.

Nope. He’s still very much alive and deep in the memory of former President George W. Bush, who infamously picked him for his vice president. Get ready to view eight years of darkness. And yes, it was all worse than you know.

We speak here of Richard Cheney, alias “Dick” Cheney, Bush’s Martin Bormann.

But here in writer-director Adam McKay’s comedy/drama biopic, which he claims is all true, Dick is very much alive in the superbly bloated body of the great American actor Christian Bale, who piled on some 40 extra pounds and layers of aging makeup and a few prosthetics.

The fun — and it’s a ton of fun — starts with Cheney as a rural Wyoming drunk employed as a telephone lineman who keeps getting picked up and booked on OUIs.

But Dick is taken in hand by his then-girlfriend Lynne (incredible Amy Adams) who in an amazing scene, sits him down, sticks her finger in his face and threatens him with abandonment. Presto: Drunk vanishes, political monster appears.

We proceed from there to Washington, where Dick begins his crawl up from the bottom, and is once again taken in hand by even more powerful forces.

We’ll meet Donald Rumsfeld (the ubiquitous Steve Carell) and a host of other soon-to-be infamous players in the great parade of political chicanery, deceit, and web spinning.

Prepare to be awed by the masterful Sam Rockwell, as “W,” with boots up on the desk in the Oval Office, chewing barbecue chicken on the porch in Texas, and showing up blind drunk at his father’s inauguration ball. Golden.

He’s not alone. Everyone in this pic is a character straight out of “Mad Men,” with drinks never more than a foot away. The clink of ice in cut glass is part of the background score.

McKay comes up with a dazzling array of devices to propel us forward. The cleverest of them is the running narration by young Jesse Plemons, who appears from time to time in various places and roles: a jogging man, a laborer, a GI in Iraq, to knit all the scenes together. His final what-the-hell-happened scene running along a suburban street is a heart stopper; you won’t forget it.

The standout of all devices is a Cheney-bedroom scene with Bale and Adams reciting an entire scene from “MacBeth” as foreplay. Lady MacBeth never exuded such heat. I guarantee that one will lift you out of your seat.

The film is laced with dozens of carefully selected scenes lifted from television newscasts — the Cambodian bombings, burning villages, and brutalized Cambodian villagers being slaughtered.

We meet and discard Richard Nixon mumbling in his tapes and walking away forever on the South Lawn.

Here comes the young-and-still-handsome Antonin Scalia, and “Scooter Libby,” figures we have all but forgotten.

The beauty here, much to my surprise, is the brilliant casting of the actors who take on the mannerisms and evil smiles.

Carell’s Rumsfeld has the pick of those scenes in his dark hall, party corners and inner room guidance to Bale’s Cheney. Rumsfeld glides from favorite Oval Office child to a chilling plummet to the ground, as he is forever thrown under the bus on a drawing-room telephone.

As I write this and try to remember every blown-away moment, Alison Pill as the broken-and-tossed-aside lesbian daughter who knocks the wind out of her parents with one electric line stands out.

Cheney sitting in a van and shooting his hunting partner in the face?

Who will walk the red carpet? Who will pick the top dog? Rockwell as Bush? Amy in the best performance of her career as Lynne Cheney, rising and falling before our eyes? Carell in his best work ever as Rumsfeld?

Methinks the Oscar goes to Bale, as he vanishes before our eyes and reappears as Dick Cheney. There is so much to digest in McKay’s splendid film, it automatically requires a second viewing.

From the dusty Wyoming-roadside pools of vomit, the fire and death of the twin towers on 9/11 to each of Cheney’s near-fatal heart attacks and that incredible bed scene, McKay rips it out, and leaves us in joyful stupor.

“Vice” is a brilliant big-screen mural, a calendar of carnival chaos, full of gasps, laughs, chills and surprises. Best picture of the year? Big names are betting on it.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.


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