It’s a critical cliche to praise a performance along the lines of “this isn’t acting but a channeling…a complete psychological and biological submission.” This certainly describes Christian Bale‘s must-see performance as former vice-president Dick Cheney in Adam McKay‘s Vice — no question. But I’m persuaded that even in this realm Bale has gone above and beyond.

I haven’t felt the same kind of chills since Robert De Niro‘s Oscar-winning performance as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (’80), except this time I felt a deeper recognition and…I don’t know, something extra.

Mainly because I feel I know Dick Cheney pretty well, certainly in terms of his appearance and voice and laid-back, Prince-of-Darkness attitude, and I wasn’t at all familiar with Jake La Motta when I first saw Raging Bull 38 years ago. I was deeply impressed (who wasn’t?) by De Niro’s coarse, bellowing Bronx-Italian shtick — that primal beastliness that he’d obviously drilled into, body and soul. But experiencing Bale’s Cheney was, for me, slightly more of an “oh, wow” or a “holy moley” thing.

It’s like De Niro’s La Motta was Elvis Presley in the mid ’50s, and now Bale’s Cheney is the Beatles during their first American tour, and De Niro has just sent Bale a cable saying “okay, the torch has been passed — I had a nice long run as the king of wholly transformative weight-gain performances, and now you’re the standard-bearer…hats off, due respect.”

There’s always a slight gap between knowing what a certain famous person looked, acted and sounded like and how this or that actor registers when trying to make a performance happen. There’s always that “uh-huh…yeah, pretty close, good work” kind of acknowledgment. And sometimes not so much. Every time an actor has tried to portray John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood, Greg Kinnear, Cliff Robertson, William Devane, Martin Sheen, Caspar Phillipson, etc.), the chasm has been distracting if not irritating. But not in the matter of Bale-as-Cheney. Bale is up to something else.

You can say “hold on, calm down…this is the exact same current that I got from Charlize Theron‘s Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Bruno Ganz‘s Hitler in Downfall, Ben Kingsley‘s lead performance in Gandhi, Meryl Streep-as-Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Helen Mirren in The Queen,” etc.

Maybe, maybe not. All I can say is that I felt the appliance of skill and technique with each of these. Plus the presence of makeup or prosthetics. On top of which, as mentioned, I didn’t know the real-life characters as well as I do Cheney.

What is a high-immersive biopic performance? It means investing 110% in three ways. One, delivering a convincing impersonation of the better-known vocal or behavioral traits. Two, becoming that person physically by gaining or losing 50 or 60 pounds or wearing the right kind of prosthetic nose (Nicole Kidman in The Hours) or adopting some physical trait or affliction (Eddie Redmayne‘s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything). And three, becoming the character in some non-judgmental way with the audience sensing that whomever and whatever the character may be (or whom he/she was in real life), the actor isn’t out to indict or prosecute or praise.

There’s a moment at the end of Vice when Bale delivers a straight-to-the-camera explanation of who he (Cheney) basically is and why he implemented ruthless measures (torture, etc.) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. During a recent post-screening discussion McKay said that he and Bale had co-written this passage the night before they shot it. You don’t get the feeling from this soliloquy that Cheney is being condemned or let off the hook. It’s just an even-steven, straight from the shoulder, you figure it out.

Posted on 11.25: Adam McKay‘s Vice (Annapurna, 12.25) is a brilliant, slash-and-burn, hellzapoppin’ portrait of deliciously ruthless schemin’, schemin’, schemin’ like a demon. And it’s great fun for the most part — witty, wicked and wonderfully cruel. How we fucked ourselves and bought the WMD bullshit and murdered tens of thousands and bombed the hell out of Iraq and created ISIS in the bargain, etc.

The primary object of scorn and fascination, of course, is former vp Dick Cheney but the film teems with a whole cavalcade of conservatives…a whole kill-or-be-killed universe of conniving super-serpents who’ve risen and slithered over the last half-century (George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, Antonin Scalia, Frank Luntz) along with Dick’s go-getter wife Lynne (Amy Adams) and their daughters Mary and Liz (Allison Pill, Lily Rabe).

Really and truly, the gang’s all here and it’s all fun, fun, fun. Or it was for me, at least.

Vice costar Amy Adams, director-writer Adam McKay following this morning’s screening at the SVA theatre on West 23rd street.

“Fun” in a downishly deadpan sort of way, of course, because we’re talking about the balls-out career of a really shitty, cold-blooded human being as well as the collapse of the twin towers, the imagining of WMDs and the invasion of Iraq and all the horrors and cold-cockings and focus-groupings and flat-out lying that followed. Not to mention the smirking and jaw-clenching.

And it’s all so precise and scalpel-like, so dry and cutting and laser-focused. It’s a movie that says “Dick, Dick…what a dick!” As well as “you guys out there, the ones eating the popcorn…you screwed yourselves and our country by electing these assholes…you know that, right?”

And stylistically Vice is all over the place so you don’t know where the hell to turn. It fully cops to being a “movie” from the get-go, offering a narrator while reversing and fast-forwarding, delivering a blatantly phony ending at the halfway mark, always smirking, full of self-regarding commentary, double-backing and hop-scotching around…it’s instructional with a bullwhip.

Bale will land a Best Actor nomination and deserves to win it, if you ask me. You can’t help but marvel at the voice, the attitude, the physical transformation…all of it. And Adams, count on it, will definitely be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She glares, she snaps, she takes no shit.

Here’s an example of something that Donald Rumsfeld found funny back in the ’70s, at least according to McKay’s script. He was talking strategy with Cheney, and then Cheney turned solemn. It’s not “funny” dialogue, but it’s dryly amusing because it tells you who Rumsfeld is deep down (and by extension all of those righty ayeholes):

Is Vice a hah-hah comedy? It is if you understand the kind of humor that McKay is churning out. I’ll admit that it turns kind of grim toward the end when the film is taking stock of all the death and despair and bloody, burned bodies…all the havoc and horror and shrapnel that has rained down on all the enemies of the American war machine over the decades.

Over the closing credits Vice ends with “America” from West Side Story. Either you get it or you don’t.