‘Vice’ is a biographical film about President G.W. Bush’s powerful, secretive Vice-President, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale after many large dinners). It is a clever movie. At times the director, Adam Mackay, is too clever and the cleverness disrupts the narrative by its prominence. But, through sharp editing, you are kept critically on your toes, sorting out the factual from the imaginary, the drama from the documentary. The rolling story through four decades of US political history is interspersed with flashbacks, while a mystery John Doe narrator does a chatty voice-over. The film feels like a series of moving snapshots.
There are times the audience might wonder if Mackay is patronizing them: there are far too many sharp cuts from bombs and mayhem to domestic bliss. Cuts to Cheney’s fly fishing as a metaphor for cleverly outwitting your opponent by camouflaging your moves, are repeated too often. Yes, we get it: Cheney, like a Mafia capo di tutti, presides over dreadful things but is a devoted family man who goes fishing. Cheney shows love and understanding for his lesbian daughter who, from a political point of view, was a liability. That is about the only time in the film he shows anything other than a cold calculating lust for power.
‘Vice’ is a movie about bad men doing bad things. Amy Adams, playing his wife Lynne, (she doesn’t age enough over the forty years) is obliged rather one dimensionally, to play a Wyoming Lady Macbeth. Cheney began his career as Donald Rumsfeld’s intern (played with Olympian cynicism by Steve Carell) and Rumsfeld is the key to Cheney’s rise to power. The two share a ruthless camaraderie through three presidencies. But by December 2006 Cheney is powerful enough to sit back and watch him sacked as Secretary of Defence. The film suggests Cheney is behind it, but a number of generals had lined up to get rid of him.
‘Vice’ is in some ways an invasion of Michael Moore’s fun space, without his scruffy presence lolloping around sundry perpetrators of badness, so there have to be some jokes. Most of these revolve around Cheney nonchalantly having heart attacks at key moments. Though I could have done without close ups of a human heart on a dish and a surgeon pawing around in a bloody chest cavity, by way of showing that the heart-attack joke was for real. Likewise Lynne and Dick in bed in their pajamas speaking Shakespeare to each other was both clever and funny. The audience could reflect on the timeless quality of the pursuit of power and the making of kings.
The film portrays George W. Bush as a clean living, gullible, dummy. Realising how much Bush needs him, before accepting the role of Vice-President, Cheney extracts a promise that it is the Vice-President who will actually run the administration and have unparalleled access to information. It was disconcerting that George W. (Sam Rockwell) looked nothing like, and sounded not much like, the real George W. This stood out because LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice was uncannily like the real ‘Condy’. Though she only had a few lines to deliver while looking worried.
‘Vice’ brings the Iraq weapons of mass destruction myth into sharp focus. Focus groups had shown that the public were confused about a war against terrorism but understood the idea of a war against another country. Enter Iraq with plenty of oil and a suitable villain in charge. I wish the film had said more about Halliburton, the vast global oil services company of which Cheney had been chief executive, but I guess the lawyers were out in droves. The cynical manipulation of public opinion and sentiment, and the conscious misuse of expertise, notably in public relations, was a legacy that we are living with now. It is the new normal.
Sometimes the deliberate distortions boomeranged back. The Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a thug lurking somewhere in N.E. Iraq until he was pumped up by the CIA as a key link to Al-Qaida. Henceforth, with this enhanced status, he began to adopt a leadership role with devastating consequences. What is striking is how pathetically weak were these attempts to link Saddam Hussein and Iraq with Al-Qaida. General Colin Powell is portrayed as knowingly presenting at the UN, as an act of military obedience to the Commander in Chief, a farrago of nonsense to make the case for invasion. Why didn’t he resign? How Tony Blair, and most of the Labour and Conservative Party, were induced to believe this spectacular bundle of fake-news, crafted by a handful of US Neo-cons and the CIA, is hard to fathom.
Director Mackay presents Cheney as being the main proponent of the doctrine of unlimited Presidential executive power, leading to torture being legalised, not to mention misleading the public over Iraq. Historians will baulk at the great – and wicked – leader theory of change implied in the screenplay. In the film Cheney was no Stalin though he shared some of his characteristics, secretive, ruthless, grasping every opportunity to manoeuvre himself into positions of power. And without the subtleties of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. One of the best shots, held for a long while in the movie, is Cheney in silhouette at the door of the Oval Office. He’d made it. And that was what he cared about.
You come away from ‘Vice’ wondering whether wry amusement at a movie in which the deaths of over 600,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 US military dead, appear as the bi-products of Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s actions, is the right response. Was this a lefty’s, sorry liberal’s, night out with everyone feeling as clever and superior as the screenplay? Good jokes to distance you from the awfulness of it all. Perhaps. At least it reminded you that the Trump White House and its hangers-on isn’t the first political horror show produced in the USA. Nor, I fear, the last.