Dick Cheney is a notoriously secretive and private person. He has used this to his advantage to operate in the shadows, removed from the public eye and therefore public scrutiny. Even his position as vice president allowed him to operate from the backseat of the George W. Bush presidency, and through Cheney’s actions, he reshaped the world as we know it today. Adam McKay’s Vice isn’t trying to bring Cheney into the light as much as it’s saying, “You want to use the shadows for your own personal ends? Fine. Stay in the shadows, and I’ll write your story.” If Cheney knows how to work the levers of power, then McKay knows how to work the levers of entertainment, and like he did with The Big Short, he tells an entertaining but damning tale of unfettered American power that operated in secret, wreaked massive havoc, and got away with it. It may not be a “fair” portrayal of Dick Cheney, but when has Dick Cheney ever cared about fairness?
Although Vice is ostensibly the story about the rise of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from a dirtbag kicking around Wyoming to one of the most powerful people in the world, the movie isn’t too concerned with his interior life or some defining moment beyond his Lady Macbeth of a wife Lynne (Amy Adams) pushing him to dominate and control his destiny. Instead, Cheney functions as a vehicle to show how Republican leadership left all responsibility behind and precipitated our nation’s downfall. McKay rarely gives Cheney credit as an individual, showing that he didn’t have an intellectual background or a firm set of guiding principals beyond a lust for power. Instead, it showed how he expertly played the game of politics to his own ends and then recklessly wielded the power he gained.
You can leave Vice without a better understanding of Cheney, but the experience of watching the movie is like reliving the horrors of the Bush administration in a two-hour window. Like with The Big Short, McKay is eager to educate his audience, and he doesn’t care if you know what makes Dick Cheney tick or not. The individual is ultimately unimportant. What’s important is that you learn about things like The Unitary Executive and how someone like the slimy and amoral Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) served as a guiding force in Cheney’s life. The people are noteworthy, but it’s more important that you see the whole board rather than look at individual players.
At times, this renders the depictions somewhat cartoonish. It’s unlikely that Dick and Lynne were at a party and he turned to her and growled, “The world has yet to see the full might of America.” The performances are sublime and precise, but they’re in service to a story where they’re figures in a much larger canvas. Bale is uncanny as Cheney, completely slipping into a taciturn figure and making you forget there’s even an actor there. But it’s not in service of understanding Cheney as much as it’s trying to paint a picture of what Cheney was involved in. We need to believe in Cheney’s world, grotesque and absurd as it may be, and these performances are essential grounding for the disturbing world McKay shows us.
Like with The Big Short, McKay is fearless in using every tool at his disposal to both entertain and enlighten his audience. There have been countless essays, thinkpieces, op-eds, and books on the evils of Dick Cheney and the Bush Administration, and yet in a perverse way, they’ve all fallen into a void. They reach the people who are already informed and already have an opinion. McKay wants to reach a broader audience. He wants to reach people who would never bother to read Paul Krugman but can’t wait to see the latest Fast & Furious movie. This movie is for them even if McKay is quick to cite our complicity in letting Cheney and his cronies run rampant through out country. Cheney didn’t create the focus groups that approved renaming the “Estate Tax” into “Death Tax” or approving the phrase “We can’t let the smoking gun become a mushroom cloud,” but he fostered the world that created those focus groups. In turn, he twisted and perverted our nation to the ends of the wealthiest and most secure while everyone else was left to pay the price.
For some, Vice will seem like a liberal hit at a soft conservative target. But Vice is bigger than just what Adam McKay thinks about Dick Cheney. It’s a portrait of the 2000s and the horrors we’re choosing to lose down the memory hole. It’s easy to forget them when the Overton Window keeps shifting and the news demands more of our attention each day with fresh hells aplenty. Who can remember who tortured who when kids are in cages? Who knows how the Iraq War started when World War III could start with North Korea any day? But as Vice shows, now and then are not two separate entities. We’re living in the America that Dick Cheney created and while Cheney, his family, and his friends will never have to pay for his actions (unless he accidentally shoots them in the face), the rest of us will. There are far worse things in this world than not being nice enough to Dick Cheney.