Dear Commons Community,
Elaine and I saw the movie, Vice, last night. It was depressing to see and hear the story of Dick Cheney’s rise to become the most powerful vice president we have ever had in the United States. His dark view of the world supported entirely by his ambitious wife, Lynne, comes to life on the screen. For those of us old enough to remember the rise of Cheney and especially the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, the movie is at times infuriating. The cast is excellent and entirely believable. If you did not despise what Cheney, his wife, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Vice’s crew perpetrated on the United States and especially on the people of Iraq, you will after seeing this movie. Below is an excerpt from a New York Times review written by A.O. Scott.
‘Vice’ Review: Dick Cheney and the Negative Great Man Theory of History!
New York Times
December 17, 2018
The way “Vice” tells it, Dick Cheney, who would go on to become the most powerful vice president in American history, started out as a young man in a hurry to nowhere in particular. After washing out of Yale, he retreated to his home state of Wyoming, pursuing his interests in booze and cigarettes and working as a utility-company lineman on the side. Dick was saved from ruin — or at least from the kind of drab destiny unlikely to result in a biopic — by the stern intervention of his fiancée, Lynne Vincent, who told her wayward beau that they were finished unless he pulled himself together.
Her reading of the romantic riot act would have far-reaching consequences. In that pivotal moment, Dick (Christian Bale) looks Lynne (Amy Adams) in the eye and swears he’ll never disappoint her again. The thesis of this film, written and directed by Adam McKay, is that Dick kept his promise. And that everyone else — including his daughter Mary (Alison Pill), thousands of American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and just about everyone on the planet with a care for justice, democracy or simple human decency — paid the price.
It will break no news and spoil nobody’s fun to note that McKay is not a fan of his protagonist. His argument is essentially that much of what critics of the current president fear most — the erosion of democratic norms; the manufacture of “alternative facts”; the rise of an authoritarian executive branch — already came to pass when George W. Bush was in office. But “Vice” offers more than Yuletide rage-bait for liberal moviegoers, who already have plenty to be mad about. Revulsion and admiration lie as close together as the red and white stripes on the American flag, and if this is in some respects a real-life monster movie, it’s one that takes a lively and at times surprisingly sympathetic interest in its chosen demon.
McKay, staying close to the historical record (and drawing on books by the journalists Jane Mayer and Barton Gellman), propounds a negative great man theory of history, telling the story of an individual who was able, through a unique combination of discipline, guile and luck, to bend reality to his will. The man’s feats are both impressive and appalling. He learns the Washington inside game during the Nixon and Ford administrations, applies the lessons during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and demonstrates his unmatched mastery when George W. (Sam Rockwell) comes along.
The story of his rise, roller-coastering through four decades of American history, is a hectic blend of psychohistory, domestic drama and sketch-comedy satire bound together by McKay’s ingenuity and indignation. Like “The Big Short,” his rollicking explication of the financial crisis of 2008, this movie transforms gaudy pop-cultural toys into tools of polemic and explanation. The pace is jaunty, the scenes crackle with gleeful, giddy incredulity, and the dry business of statecraft attains the velocity of farce. The fourth wall is periodically broken, most often by an affable everyman narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose connection to the main character turns out to be one of the few surprises in the plot.
Everything else we’ve already known — or would have if we had been playing closer attention. Bale, thickening and graying before our eyes, burrows into the personality of a shrewd operator endowed with whatever the opposite of charisma might be. His Cheney lacks any trace of charm, humor or warmth, except sometimes in the company of his family. Dick’s devotion to his wife and their two daughters is genuine, but what motivates him above all is the study and acquisition of power, a vocation in which he has Lynne’s fierce and unstinting support.
While he can afford to be sentimental about domesticity and chivalrous toward the women in his life, she has no use for such softness. Dick brings doggedness and tactical instincts to their partnership; Lynne provides the ideological steel. McKay’s portrait of their marriage subscribes to a Macbeth-like conception of political morality. Behind every bad man, there is a woman who is even worse. Adams, as brisk as January in Cheyenne, once again subverts a potentially marginal, helpmeet role (see also “The Master”), establishing Lynne as the movie’s covert protagonist.
If she has a rival for that role, it’s Donald Rumsfeld, played with demented vigor by Steve Carell. The Dick-and-Lynne marital saga is shadowed by a buddy comedy, in which Dick and Don make their merry Machiavellian way through the legislative and executive branches of government. At first, Rumsfeld is the mentor — an acerbic congressman from Illinois while Cheney is an intern. They dabble in Nixonian intrigue without being tainted by scandal, and cross swords with Henry Kissinger (Kirk Bovill) during the reign of Gerald Ford (Bill Camp).
“What do we believe in?” Dick asks his Yoda at one point, provoking a gale of laughter in response. The more substantive answers are torture, deceit and the all-but-unchecked power of the American presidency. Which turns out, once George W. Bush gets that job, to mean the American vice presidency.
“Vice” is crowded with supporting players, figures plucked from the limbo between the headlines and the history textbooks whose names chime like alerts on an ancient cellphone. Remember Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk)? David Addington (Don McManus)? Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan)? You probably remember Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) and Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton). “Vice” reminds you of all of them, and of other Bush-era people and events, obscure and otherwise, that you might have preferred to forget. It’s a cure — and perhaps a punishment — for amnesia.
To the question “How did he do it?” McKay offers a fairly coherent answer, one grounded in Bale’s canny and sensitive performance. As biography, in other words, the movie works pretty well. As history, though, it’s another story — at once tendentious and undercooked, proposing a reductive, essentially conspiratorial account of recent events.
“The Big Short” used the interplay of personalities to illuminate the workings of a complex system, but “Vice” moves in the opposite direction. The motley pageantry of our politics — the endless arguments about race, class, religion, ideology, sex, region and heritage that have defined the republic since the beginning — boils down to a single personality. All you really need to know about the world today is that everything wrong with it is Dick Cheney’s fault.
How did he get away with it, though? The answer McKay supplies is that he was smart and the rest of us were too dumb and too distracted to stop him. As “Vice” winds down, there is a scene of a political focus group during which a young woman, bored by all the partisan bickering and talk of abstract issues, looks forward to the next “Fast and Furious” movie. It’s hard to know whether this represents hypocrisy or penitence on McKay’s part, but the idea that someone can’t care about both politics and popular culture is dubious at best. At worst, it’s a sneer directed at the audience, an expression of contempt for the public that the movie seems to share with its designated villain.