Vice (Movie Review)

Jordan Peterson often reminds his passel of followers that if you think things cannot get any worse you are not being imaginative enough. At the end of the Bush presidency with the American economy hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs a month, countless civilians dead in Iraq and Afghanistan along with thousand of dead and wounded US soldiers, gargantuan financial firms on the verge of bankruptcy, and the majority of state houses controlled by the Republican governors pushing policies like conceal-and-carry gun laws and creationism as an intellectually honest substitute for biology classes, Liberals felt that surely the US had hid the nadir in history of the nation’s polity. Glib comparisons of the Bush presidency to fascism rounded off the effort.

Figure: Remember, things can always get worse

Source: Google Trends

Because large and impersonal forces are difficult to attack, political disagreements inevitably manifest themselves in specific people. Luckily, for the Left at any rate, Dick Cheney was a prefab caricature of a right-wing boogeyman. Beginning his political career as an aid in the Nixon administration and chief of staff for Gerald Ford, Cheney would also be elected as Wyoming’s sole congressman six times in a row and then serve as Secretary of Defense under H. Bush’s administration. During the Clinton years he was the CEO of Halliburton which is an oil-services company. When George W. Bush ran for president, Cheney was an ideal running mate. While W. could focus on being the face of compassionate conservatism and saying “Hola” with the conviction of a twelfth grader, Cheney would add a stolidity and seriousness to the ticket.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the demeanor of the Bush administration was to be forever altered. To what extent was the War on Terror, the financial crisis, policies which exacerbated income inequality like the tax cuts seen in 2001 and 2003, the failure of the federal government to respond to Hurricane Katrina, the deregulatory agenda, etc, orchestrated and masterminded by Dick Cheney? According to Adam McKay’s newest film Vice, the answer is: almost all of it. On a high from the (well-made) biographical comedy drama The Big Short (based on Michael Lewis’ book) which explored the financial hysteria of the housing market from the perspective of investors seeking to short American housing assets, McKay turned his lens to a portrayal of the enigmatic 46th Vice President of the United States. The film sports a cavalcade of A-list actors including Christian Bale as Mr. Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as Double-Yah. It should be said at the outset that the acting and makeup for this film was tremendous. Bale is such a phenomenal method actor that he effortlessly plays Cheney ranging from his drunken and deadbeat version during his 20s to an overweight one during the 2000s. Despite the absurd level of accolades the movie has been receiving, any awards for acting and hair/makeup are richly deserved.

At the beginning of the film the audience is given a précis of what to expect. On the day of the attacks of 9/11, Cheney is superseding the president’s role of giving wartime commands to various government agencies as various cabinet members demur (e.g. Condoleezza Rice) as to his authority. How, the narrator asks, did this reticent and bureaucratic man go on to become the most powerful Vice President in American history? How does one man wield so much power without the public spotlight or accountability? Only by a chronological montage of his life will we be able to find out.

Cheney’s initial life prospects were not promising. Growing up in Wyoming, he received the opportunity to study at Yale but dropped out (the film suggests this was due to excessive partying and drinking). Returning to his home state, he worked as a powerline repairman but continued to find the time to get plastered and was arrested for drunk driving on several occasions. After being read the riot act by his wife, Dick agrees to return to a life on the straight and narrow. Although we are not exactly made sure as to how in the film, Cheney winds up in Washington as an intern where he is entranced by an impromptu speech of the Director for the Office of Economic Opportunity–Donald Rumsfeld. Our first hint of Cheney’s Machiavellian streak is that after he asks what party Rumsfeld belongs to, he says “then I am a Republican”. Are we seriously to believe that a congressional intern would both not know a member of Cabinet and have no preference for the Democratic or Republican party at the height of the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the War of Poverty? Such critical questions need to be suspended in order for us to come to see Cheney as an Iago figure.

After losing favour with the Nixon administration, Rumsfeld is given a serendipitous “get lost” job in Brussels which allows him to avoid the taint of being associated with the impending Watergate crisis. The Rumsfeld/Cheney duo are able to receive significant promotions in the Ford administration as the Secretary of State and Chief of Staff, respectively. Throughout this period, Rumsfeld is shown to be Cheney’s sensei, schooling him in the art of power in Washington. At one point Cheney awkwardly asks “What exactly do we believe in?” and receives cackling laughter from Rumsfeld as a response. Again, an audience will need to accept evil laughter as a plausible form of behavior in order to get along. Did I mention that movie has been nominated for dozens of awards?

During the Reagan Era we pan to Cheney’s career as the five-time congressman for Wyoming’s sole congressional district. Cheney is shown to be an uncharismatic politician who has trouble keeping the attention of a room full of sedated military veterans. After having one of the many heart attacks he will have over his lifetime, his temporary incapacitation allows Lynne Cheney to assume her husbands role. Showing none of the awkwardness of her husband, we see Lynne deliver fiery speeches in defense of conservative values and berating liberal females for having the indelicacy to burn their bras whereas the good women of Wyoming know where a bra belongs echoing the sentiments of Phyllis Schlafly. While McKay is careening Cheney on Iago-path, we are also meant to see Lynne as Lady Macbeth. During her earlier beratement of Dick after his DUI, she reminds him that she is smart and ambitious and but for the limitations of this world, she has the capacity to rise to great heights. But since she cannot, Dick must be her surrogate.

Yet how is Cheney able to overcome his political handicap in subsequent elections of which he would win another four times every two years? We remain ignorant. Instead we are given a montage of Cheney’s sinister voting patterns, voting “No” on all that is sweetness and light including the establishment of a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and the renewal of the Clean Water Act. The movie may have omitted to mention the Kitten and Puppie euthanasia bill. In one of the worst directorial decisions of the whole movie the narrator “explains” the Reagan revolution as an unholy alliance of hard-right social conservatives and wealthy donors. Vague references are made about the Koch brothers funding right-wing think tanks as a smokescreen for their ultimate purpose: to lower their income taxes. Any references about rising crime rates, inflation, or declining American prestige after the Iran hostage crisis as possibly spurs for Reagan’s election? The movie was unfortunately not able to find the time in between cuts of music videos and YouTube clips meant to give the audience a feel for the pop culture moments of the era.

Jumping ahead to 1999, we see the Cheney family living in a large idyllic country estate in Virginia. In another goofy moment, the film credits begin to role as the narrator explains the quiet retirement plans of the Cheney family with Dick fly-fishing and breeding golden retrievers. Just kidding! Double-Yah calls Dick out of the blue asking if they can have a meeting about his presidential campaign. Despite the narrator claiming that we are unable to see into the Cheney’s mind as to how he plans to turn the initially unappealing Vice Presidential ticket into something rising to his level of ambition, we are made quite aware how he plans on doing it: taking advantage of the clueless George by having an informal arrangement that if they are elected Cheney will manage “the more mundane jobs overseeing bureaucracy, military, energy, and foreign policy”. Double-Yah will then be left with pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey presumably.

The high point of the film, to the extent that any of it is true, is explaining the way in which Cheney and his advisors set themselves up to run many of the affairs of the White House including being BCC’d on all messages to the President and having direct access to the Oval Office. Also interesting was the various legal memoranda that Cheney would employ including that relate to the Unitary executive theory. Unlike the Big Short which actually did a good job at explaining complicated concepts in financial markets, I am still hazy as to what this theory implied other than giving Bush/Cheney godlike executive powers. But what exactly were these new powers that they received under this theory that previous presidents did not have? Did Obama or Trump continue to use this theory to their advantage? Again there was just not enough time to be found in this movie in-between the video cuts of stock videos of growling hyanes seen through night-vision cameras (really).

This movie was flawed on so many levels. There is a contradiction between the philosophical vapidness of Cheney and the focused efficiency on specific policy choices that Cheney sought to enact. The directorial style of a gonzo exposé which is light and humourous undermines the caricature of a Cheney as Iago. While Vice has a 64% rating on the Tomatometer, the audience score is appropriately lower at 56%. Outside of political nerds who will enjoy this movie for its own sake, I would not recommend seeing this movie.

Written on December 31, 2018