There must be a dozen ways to make a movie about the life, times, and outsize influence of Dick Cheney, and adopting the style of a Mad magazine satire may be one of them, but Vice—writer-director Adam McKay’s wayward stab at that approach—doesn’t make a plausible case.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Mad. One of the greatest dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove, shared a strong whiff of its sensibility. The characters’ names, Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s horror of fluoridation, the improv-troupe dialogues in the war room, and the bombardier’s hee-haw bronco ride to ground zero were all wildly implausible, but they were also hilarious and terrifying—resonating fully with the doomsday scenarios, logical theories, and physical artifacts of the real-life nuclear-war culture that it was satirizing.
With Vice, not so much.
McKay’s first film to mix absurdist comedy with sociopolitical criticism, The Big Short, about the team of Wall Street wizards who made a fortune off the 2008 financial crash, was based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, which told the tale in a clear and lively narrative for which McKay devised clever cinematic language.
To prepare for Vice, McKay reportedly read some very good books about Cheney (Barton Gellman’s Angler) and the war on terror (Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side), but his own grasp of Washington politics is thin, and his understanding of power and how it works hews to what V.I. Lenin denounced as “infantile leftism.”
He does get several things right. Cheney did start out as a “ne-’er do well,” flunking out of Yale and compiling a police record for DUIs, before straightening out and climbing up the Washington establishment’s greasy pole, emerging as the most powerful vice president in American history. He acquired this power in the weeks after the 2000 election, while the outcome was in contention, by placing loyalists in key slots throughout the federal bureaucracy, which he knew so well. He consolidated his hold by pushing his legal team to apply the “unitary executive theory”—which asserts that the president possesses the power to control the entire executive branch—and then usurping that power, especially in national security policy.
On the morning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, while Bush was out of town, Cheney—almost certainly at his own initiative—authorized U.S. military pilots to shoot down passenger planes that looked like they might pose a threat. Most notoriously, he pressured the CIA to find links between the al-Qaida terrorists and Saddam Hussein that would justify invading Iraq, oversaw the public relations campaign to build popular support for the war using these contrived connections, and encouraged, if not ordered, the rendition and torture of terror suspects.
It can fairly be claimed, then, that Cheney is responsible for the worst strategic blunder in U.S. history, the destabilization of the Middle East, the growth of our surveillance state, and the deaths of 4,000 American troops and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Bush, of course, allowed all this to happen, but if he had chosen someone else as his running mate, it’s likely that the world today would be a different, almost certainly safer place.
So how did this happen? Who is Cheney? How did he amass such power? What were his motives and goals? Any work about him—a book, film, play, or whatever—needs to deal with these questions. Vice does so shallowly and evasively.
The film portrays Cheney’s political ambition as entirely cynical, geared toward nothing but power for its own sake. In an early scene, while he’s working for then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld (his tag-team partner in hardball politics through the Nixon, Ford, and both Bush presidencies), Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” Rumsfeld laughs hysterically, the implication being that they believe in nothing. In fact both men, especially Cheney, were deeply conservative. To discount their ideological impulses gives them too little credit for their egregious actions.
McKay also suggests that Cheney supported invading Iraq solely because of his ties to oil companies—including his stint between the two Bush presidencies as CEO of the Halliburton Company, which made a fortune from no-bid contracts in Iraq. This no doubt affected Cheney’s thinking to some degree, but it leaves unexplained the community of neoconservatives—most of whom had no such financial interests—who’d been pushing for violent regime change in Iraq throughout the 1990s.
The film also makes barely mentions the first Gulf War, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, when Cheney was secretary of defense. This is no small matter: The fact that the elder Bush won that war but left Saddam Hussein in power had an influence on how the younger Bush and Cheney viewed the second Iraq war a decade later.
Another reason for McKay’s brush-off of the first Gulf War may be that dealing it would have forced him to confront the fact that, even by the estimate of his critics (including me), Cheney oversaw that war—and handled his duties as defense secretary broadly—with open-minded professionalism. McKay begins the film by having his narrator say that when Cheney became vice president, nobody knew much about him. In reality, he’d emerged from the Gulf War an admired celebrity. In his many press interviews at the time, he came off as an emblem of cool competence, and his clipped voice—which the narrator describes as “monotonous and bureaucratic”—accentuated that impression.
This is why so many people who observed Cheney under Bush Sr. (including me) were so stunned and puzzled by his fanatical turn under Bush Jr. What changed? Had the three heart attacks blocked some of the oxygen to his brain? Was it the sheer scare of Sept. 11? Was it his belief that, in the wake of its Cold War victory and the Soviet Union’s implosion (an important contextual event the film ignores), the United States could get away with a more aggressive foreign policy and, therefore, should? In the film, from the time of his ascent to high power on, he undergoes no change and thus there’s no need to explain it.
These omissions and distortions might be tolerable if Vice offered a shrewd, or even merely funny, look at the exercise of power behind closed doors. But the scenes purporting to do this are lame—for the most part silly, rarely setting off so much as a giggle. In one scene, a Cabinet meeting to discuss invading Iraq, an eager-for-war Rumsfeld lays into a reluctant Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), calling him a “nervous Nellie” and shouting “Don’t give me that” when Powell objects that Iraq is a sovereign nation.
Scenes like these don’t have to be strictly speaking true in order to land their punches. The war room scenes in Dr. Strangelove, or the office-politics meetings in Veep (to cite another, much better comedy about a vice president), are hardly realistic in that sense. But the situations and clashes are plausible, even recognizable. Satire sharpened some essential point about power. Such scenes in Vice don’t.
Part of the problem here is that, with a few exceptions, the characters in Vice are played like cartoon stick figures. Steve Carell as Rumsfeld is one-dimensional, a smart-ass nightclub heckler who, in real life, could never have promoted himself into the bureaucratic street fighter that Henry Kissinger (who knows whereof he speaks on such matters) called “the most ruthless man I ever met.” Sam Rockwell does a good Saturday Night Live impersonation of George W. Bush’s gum-chewing charm, but he never takes it anywhere.
On the other hand, Christian Bale is Dick Cheney. The crooked sneer, the staccato growl, the chokehold air of condescension—and Bale, who may be the most chameleonic actor around, goes deep with the portrayal. There are moments in this film that hint at complexity: Cheney’s attachment to his family and incessant desire to please his wife, Lynne (who is also played with full Lady Macbethian fidelity by Amy Adams); his loving support for his daughter, Mary, when she comes out as a lesbian; the anguish when his other daughter, Liz, criticizes gay marriage while running for Congress. If this film had made a personal tragedy or a political thriller or any kind of film about Cheney, Bale would not have had to change his performance one bit. The missed possibilities here are almost poignant.
Finally, it isn’t clear what McKay is trying to accomplish. What are we supposed to take away from the movie that we didn’t bring in? At the very end, in a bit of postmodern whimsy, which worked so well in The Big Short, McKay reproduces Cheney’s post-Bush TV interview where the journalist notes that a majority of Americans think the invasion of Iraq was a waste and Cheney chillingly replies, “So?” He then turns to McKay’s camera, to us, and says, “I will not apologize for keeping your families safe. … You chose me … I did what you asked.”
The intent, clearly, is to coat the film we’ve just seen with a sheen of ambiguity and irony, to sideswipe us with a shock of recognition at our shared culpability. (The bell tolls for thee.) But this is a lot of malarkey. The film (correctly) notes earlier that Bush and Cheney won the election only through the Supreme Court’s outlandish halting of the recount in Florida (so it’s not true that we “chose” them) and that support for the war and for torture was ginned up through lies. (Cheney did way more than what we “asked.”) A movie that had, all along, tapped into the complexities of power and politics might have pulled off this twist, but Vice doesn’t earn the indulgence.