His new film, the double entendre-ly titled “Vice,” is the twisted tale of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence under George H.W. Bush and, most famously, Vice President to George W. Bush, from college drop out to Washington insider. “Big shot DC Dick,” his father-in-law calls him.
The story begins on September 11, 2001 in the White House situation room. George Bush is on Air Force One and Cheney is the man in charge. How did this happen to a man who got kicked out of Yale for drinking too much?
“The following is a true story,” the title credits read. “Well, at least as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney was one of the most secretive leaders in history. We did our ‘bleeping’ the best.”
McKay, a self-styled historian of troubled times, works backwards to unveil Cheney’s rise. Using voiceover and his unique informational interstitials the director pieces together Cheney’s career from so-so student and OK athlete to finding his calling as a “humble servant to power.” Hired by Donald Rumsfeld (Steven Carell) as a congressional intern the young Cheney quickly shows an aptitude for navigating the halls of power. “What do we believe?” he earnestly asks Rumsfeld.
Later, on the eve of Nixon’s resignation, having tasted power, he tells Rumsfeld, “the plan is to take over the place.“ Under Gerald Ford he became the youngest ever White House Chief of Staff and then a long serving congressman for the state of Wyoming.
It’s while Cheney is serving in the House of Representatives that McKay begins to shape the portrait of the man as one of the architects of the current political situation. He emerges as a fan of deregulation and an expert in finding elasticity in the rules.
With Roger Ailes he strikes down the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC policy that required news outlets to present both sides of the story. This move, as much as anything else, helped give rise to opinion based news outlets, ie: FOX News, and the spread of right wing ideology.
Cheney weathers the Clinton years as CEO of the multinational corporation Halliburton, re-entering political life at the request of George Bush Junior. “Vice President is a nothing job,” says wife Lynne (Amy Adams) scolds. “You sit around and wait for the president to die.” Nevertheless Cheney accepts the offer and works to turn the position into a power base. His systematic restructuring of the job leaves his mentor Rumsfeld amazed. “Are you even more ruthless when you used to be?”
“Vice” heats up in its retelling of the justification of the war in Iraq. Cheney recognized the need for Americans to have an easily identifiable villain. By and large, the film suggests, the public didn’t understand who or what Al Qaeda was. “Is that a country?” So Iraq, the place with the “best targets,” was chosen in what might be flippantly described as a focus group war.
At its heart “Vice” is a damning and timely portrait of the corruption of power. McKay’s talent is his ability to take complicated situations and ideas and make them eye-level without dumbing them down. “The Big Short” explained the financial crisis of 2007–2008. “Vice” uses clever editing and set pieces to contextualize the timeline of Cheney‘s time in the public eye.
To explain how Cheney and his cronies embraced policies like enhanced interrogation McKay stages a restaurant scene. Alfred Molina plays a waiter reading off a list of specials. “We have a very fresh War Act interpretation,” he says with a flourish. “That sounds delicious,” Rumsfeld purrs. It’s absurd but these are strange times. These set pieces aren’t necessarily meant to amuse but rather display the heightened nature of the situation.
Cheney bet heavily on the notion that, “the last thing people want is complicated analysis of government.” McKay does an end run around that ideology, finding ways to effectively explain how we embraced a war on a country with no WMDs or allowing the monitoring of emails and phones without consent. The genius is, it never feels like a civics class.
Bale, almost completely unrecognizable as the heavy-set Cheney, heads the sprawling cast. His uncanny take on the character is fuelled by a low key performance. He understands that Cheney knew the power of a carefully placed whisper out punches a tantrum every time. It is precise work that will undoubtedly land him an Oscar nomination.
Perhaps “Vice’s” most telling comment on Cheney comes in its final moments. (MILD SPOILER ALERT) “You want to be loved?” he says, “go be a movie star.” He feels the public’s judgement and recriminations but doesn’t care. “I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done.”