Early in Adam McKay’s Vice, a famous but unattributed quote appears on the screen: “Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest … he strikes”.
And already we understand the problem with trying to make a film about a man like Dick Cheney. He will elude you at every turn.
Cheney was far from quiet before he became George W. Bush’s vice president in 2001. Perhaps he hadn’t been prominent when he became the youngest White House chief of staff in history under Gerald Ford in 1975. Maybe his political manoeuvring as congressman from Wyoming didn’t make headlines. But as secretary of defense for George H.W. Bush, and then as CEO of Halliburton, the multinational oil services company, he certainly made himself heard.
There was nothing subtle about his grab for power once he became vice president. Even before September 11, he was carrying out the operation in plain sight. It wasn’t that we didn’t know. It’s just that no one stopped him.
Christian Bale is phenomenal as Cheney. Every mannerism, every silence as well as utterance, is an uncanny copy of the original. At times, Bale succeeds in the near-impossible: making the Dark Prince human.
But this only elevates the problem for McKay, who captured the 2008 financial crash in The Big Short: how do you capture the raw seizure and exercise of power by a dedicated man who has almost no other priority?
The writer/director knows the essential. As soon as he took office as vice president, Cheney sought an unfettered executive – beyond Congress, beyond the courts, beyond public opinion. His quest was further propelled, not by personal gain but by fear: the attacks of September 11, followed by an autumn of anthrax in the post and snipers picking off random people near Washington. Men would be “renditioned” to face torture and unending detention in Guantanamo, “black sites” in Eastern Europe and Muammar Gaddafi’s and Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. Americans would be surveilled, without any limit, on their phones and on their computers. Saddam Hussein would be overthrown.
McKay’s pursuit is a sprawl across 50 years, from Cheney’s entry in 1960s Washington to his retirement in Wyoming. To trap his quarry, the director tries every gimmick. There is a mock-Shakespearean interlude between Cheney and his wife Lynne, excellently rendered by Amy Adams, reversing the Bard: Lynne is the updated Lady Macbeth urging her husband to refuse the vice presidential opportunity, Dick is the manipulator, grasping for power. And, throughout, a narrator gives us a Big Short-style running commentary with added background information.
You can use every gimmick in the book but when you chase your man across such a vast expanse – especially a devious and no-holds-barred man like Cheney – he will outrun you. McKay’s terrain has huge gaps. There is nothing on Cheney’s time as secretary of defense, including his lesson from the 1991 Gulf War that he was wrong to support the halt of operations before Saddam fell. Halliburton gets only a couple of passing mentions, missing the late-1990s training it gave Cheney in the quest for control of oil and gas and how to distribute them.
Then there are the caricatures. Steve Carell is fine as the political street-fighter Donald Rumsfeld – even if the performance is more Carell than Rumsfeld. But Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush is the broad-stroke buffoon, putting his feet on the desk, thinking about baseball, and giving a “hot damn!” when Cheney completes the sharkish manoeuvre to become vice president – and, completing the caricature, the real man in the White House. It may be a comforting portrayal, with power given the sheen of bumbling farce, but it erases the complexity of Bush and thus the relationship at the core of the power grab.
The essence of the moment
How do you capture the essence of power? It lies not in the sprawl, but in the moment – that moment when the pursuit of the absolute is crystallised, or alternatively when the powerful is confronted with the folly of the quest.
McKay senses this. He opens the film with the moment when, with Bush flying across a stricken US on September 11, 2001, Cheney was in the situation room as acting president. But even as Cheney was ordering American warplanes to shoot down passenger aircraft to prevent further attacks, this was a reactive moment – soon the vice president was far from powerful as the secret service rushed him to a protective bunker.
In reality, Cheney’s real moment came days later when he and his staff, along with Rumsfeld and his, built their “unitary power” on the ruins of the World Trade Center.
It came when they decided that no law, US or international – Geneva Convention be damned – bound them; that no punishment was too extreme to be used in “enhanced interrogation”. It came when they decided that men, whether they are guilty, innocent, or in between, could be buried in Guantanamo Bay or a CIA facility halfway around the world. These were the men who decided that privacy no longer existed in the US. McKay never gets us to that moment.
There is another defining scene, an episode not of the political but of the personal. When Cheney’s daughter Mary discloses as a teenager that she is a lesbian, Dick embraces her as her mother Lynne tries to process the disclosure.
But when Cheney’s other daughter Liz pursues a US senate seat in Wyoming in 2013, she is confronted by Mary’s support of same-sex marriage. The family has to decide if Liz would publicly challenge, and effectively reject, her sister. She did, in a televised interview – and, since then, Mary Cheney has left unanswered whether she ever repaired the rift with her family.
Bale portrays Cheney in anguish over the problem – with Lynne resolutely behind Liz – before ultimately he tears down the last barrier between the decency of the personal and the betrayals of power. He sells out his daughter Mary.
The moment of anguish was fleeting. Instead, McKay’s blunt hammer falls in a closing soliloquy by Cheney, again riffing off Shakespeare: “I can feel your recriminations and your judgement. And I am fine with it”.
And thus Cheney – the survivor of Washington politics, the survivor of multiple heart attacks, the survivor of an Iraq war that cut a lasting wound across America – makes his final escape.