Like Eddie Redmayne and Marmite, critics (and audiences) seem to be largely split on the Dick Cheney biopic, Vice, but I’m not entirely sure where all the hatred comes from. From a filmmaking standpoint, I suppose, Vice does not have a consistent narrative through-line, the story is somewhat scattershot, there’s very little character progression in the title character, and Adam McKay dares to inject occasional doses of black humor into the proceedings.
Viewed from a historical perspective, however, Vice is a scorcher, a damning indictment of a political sociopath literally responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, a quietly malevolent force who manipulated us into a war for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear (oil, Halliburton, money, because he could?). I know considerably more about Dick Cheney than before I watched Vice, but I still don’t feel like I understand him, and that’s either because McKay lacked a source that could provide insights into Cheney’s inner workings, or — more likely — because there’s just no understanding Dick Cheney. He’s impenetrable, a two-dimensional supervillain motivated solely by the desire to accumulate more power.
As a person, I think we learn all we need to know about Dick Cheney early on in the film when a young Cheney — a college drop-out and a drunk who works on power lines for a living — sees a co-worker fall. The man’s leg snaps. He lies on the ground writhing in pain, bone jutting out. Cheney stands over him non-plussed. Indifferent. He looks at the man like a stray dog that needs to be put down before turning his back on him and walking away.
Bale’s performance is a powerful one — there were long stretches of the movies where I completely forgot that I was watching The Dark Knight inhabit the former Vice President — but I think what Bale does best here is refuse to let the audience inside his thought process — we never see the wheels turning inside his mind, just a jackhammer pounding through cement. Cheney’s actions are inscrutable, and while that might make Cheney a frustrating character for a film, it also seems to get to the heart of Dick Cheney the man. He’s not human — he’s a skilled political cyborg, who knows precisely how to manipulate others into doing his bidding.
The only moments in which we see a flicker of humanity are those with Cheney’s family — his initial motivations, at least, seem to be guided by a desire not to disappoint his wife, Lynne Cheney, a calculating woman in her own right who understands that the avenues of power aren’t available to women and so she lives vicariously through her husband. Dick Cheney is also occasionally soft around his daughters, but even then, his thirst for political power ultimately outweighs his affection for his children. None of these glimpses into Cheney’s family life, however, are enough to humanize the inhuman.
McKay’s film takes us through Cheney’s entire political life, beginning as an intern for Donald Rumsfeld under Nixon. While Rummy (Steve Carell) managed to alienate himself from Nixon’s inner circle, that turned into something of a blessing, because after Nixon’s resignation, Rumsfeld and Cheney saw an opportunity to take power as one of the few Republicans unblemished by Watergate. The Gerald Ford presidency set them on their paths, and afterward, Cheney — an unskilled politician — served as Wyoming’s lone House Representative for a decade, thanks largely to Lynne Cheney’s campaign skills and Dick’s ability to consolidate a lot of power into that position (in fact, Cheney was instrumental in paving the way for Roger Ailes and Fox News).
What’s also fascinating is seeing how small the political world is. All of these political figures who started out came in the ’70s and early ’80s — Rumsfeld, Cheney, George H.W. Bush, Antonin Scalia, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove — continue to intersect throughout their careers. While these establishment Republicans obviously have no love for Donald Trump, they created the infrastructure that made him possible — the “swamp” Trump has both campaigned against and benefited from.
In so many ways, Dick Cheney was also far more evil than Donald Trump, a bumbling, idiotic fool haphazardly grasping for power. Trump ignores norms (and the rule of law) to achieve his, while Cheney understood how to navigate the legal system and the government bureaucracy to achieve his. While George W. Bush may occasionally seem like a kinder, gentler alternative to Trump in retrospect, McKay reminds us of just how sinister our government was under Cheney, a man who committed so many of the same sins as Trump, but who knew how to do it quietly and (mostly) without inviting constant investigations. Hell, Cheney convinced 70 percent of Americans (including a lot of Democrats, like Hillary Clinton) that it was a good idea to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 — he got thousands of American troops killed, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, while also laying the groundwork for ISIS. Not that Cheney cares. If he had a Twitter account, every single tweet would read “Go fuck yourself.”
All of which is to say that Vice is both instructive and fascinating, and that Bale and Amy Adams absolutely deserve their inevitable Oscar nominations (Carell and Sam Rockwell are also brilliant as Rumsfeld and George W., respectively). Some of the choices that McKay makes by trying to apply the absurd flourishes of The Big Short to Vice don’t work in the context of Cheney, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the narrative device that bookended the film. However, I’m willing to overlook some of the mistakes McKay makes as a filmmaker because he so capably captured the spirit of Dick Cheney as a man, which is to say, not a man at all but an appalling vessel for power and malevolent evil.
Header Image Source: Annapurna Pictures