How “Vice” Pretends to Be a Movie That It’s Not

Christian Bale was hesitant about playing Dick Cheney. Director and writer Adam McKay offered him the role but Bale would only agree to it if the project would fit a set of characteristics. “This must not be a predictable film. This must be a surprising film. This must surprise people, this must be attractive
to people no matter which side of the political spectrum they’re on,” said Bale.

It is really unfortunate, especially given Bale’s excellent and extraordinary performance, that Vice ended up being exactly that – unsurprising. Not because it’s told from a liberal point-of-view – many good movies are. But because it plays off common conceptions about the character and American politics at large while pretending not to do so.

Spoilers for the film are below. Though, if all you think of when hearing the name “Dick Cheney” is some sort-of diabolical, power-hungry, ruthless conservative corporatist who took advantage of a dumb and immature George W. Bush and also shot that one guy in the face, then the movie isn’t going to give you much news. Except maybe that he interned for Donald Rumsfeld and has a gay daughter. But that’s about it.

Let’s start at the beginning. This film, just as McKay’s The Big Short, has a narrator. Why? Well, McKay likes to be different and original. It’s something he’s truly good at and a talent I fully acknowledge. Remember Margot Robbie in the bathtub explaining mortgage bonds? It’s clever, funny, smoothly breaks the third wall and – let’s be honest – McKay knows how to incorporate it. With Vice, he might have known it too well.

The narrator isn’t revealed to us until the end, but I’ll tell you right away that he’s Dick Cheney’s dead heart donor. Plus he’s a veteran. With a kid. We don’t actually know who Cheney’s heart donor was as it was never reported. Even Cheney doesn’t know. McKay used his imagination to come up with a false version of a dead man for the sake of laughs and dramatization.

Be that as it may, the narrator doesn’t just make us laugh but also cringe. Below is an excerpt from Vice‘s script, which Annapurna made public for award season. The excerpt is from page 4.

First, “As the world becomes more and more confusing” sounds like something out of Fahrenheit 9/11 and “people working longer and longer hours, for less and less wages” sounds like something out a Bernie Sanders teleprompter. Not that there is anything wrong with a good Michael Moore movie or a well-written Bernie Sanders speech. But this is a movie about Dick Cheney. A movie McKay promised not to be political. This excerpt isn’t followed by a joke or some self-deprecating one-liner. McKay seriously wants us to swallow “VT and Stills of people working at Amazon and Wal-Mart” and a quick shot of “the Senate passing tax cuts” in a movie about Dick Cheney. In the first five minutes.

Oliver Stone, a personally extremely liberal filmmaker, made a film about George W. Bush titled W. in 2008. In general, it told the same story as Vice. It showed us Dick Cheney, it showed us the Iraq war and it showed us the tragedy that followed. Yet, Stone didn’t once input his political views into the film.

But let’s swallow those shots of Amazon and Wal-Mart for a second. Right after we see a drunk Cheney being yelled at by his soon-to-be wife, the film cuts to black to give us a quote.

“Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest…he strikes.” – ANONYMOUS

Ah, yes. Dick Cheney. The quiet man. The mastermind that tricked everyone. The issue with that is that 1. most of the audience is already expected to have that image of Cheney going into the film 2. it doesn’t tell the full story of Cheney as a person and 3. it is repeated over and over and over again throughout the film.

Multiple times McKay added orchestral music over Cheney. At one moment, he input stock footage of a lion chasing a gazelle as Cheney found out what “absolute executive authority” was. When he talks to George W. Bush, shots of his fishing line becoming tighter intercut. It’s a prime example of 1. telling the audience something over and over and over again and 2. of the movie playing off a basic conception about Cheney and offering the audience nothing new.

Wasn’t this supposed to be the “surprising” film? Filled with satire, clever wall-breaking and all of the freshness McKay is known for? Well, then why are we also getting the same boring old message of Dick Cheney being a power-hungry mastermind told a handful of times throughout the film? We get it. We got it before we bought a ticket for this film. We for sure got it when we read that “beware the quiet man” quote. Do we really need a the narrator to make a funny comparison to Galactus? Well, McKay thinks we do.

“Kings, pharaohs, dictators”. Just in case you didn’t get it into your skull the first five times, McKay makes sure to remind you that Cheney wants power.

Then, for some reason, the film makes a turn to bash those big, evil corporations. Our narrator tells us that “with one of the biggest media and political machines ever created behind him, Cheney was able to squash action Global Warming, cut taxes for the super rich and gut regulations for massive corporations.”

Huh? Why exactly does this film about Dick Cheney’s life talk about the “squash action” of Global Warming, tax cuts or regulations? Those are mainstream conservative beliefs. McKay and millions of Americans (including me) disagree with them but why exactly are they in this movie? A movie about Dick Cheney?

It’s comparable to Chappaquiddick somehow mentioning Ted Kennedy’s drive for healthcare and immigration reform. It would be completely out of place while immediately and unnecessarily reveal the political beliefs of the film’s writer.

Yes, Cheney supported the gutting of regulations, climate change legislation and taxes but so did virtually every conservative and virtually every member of the mainstream Republican party post-Reagan.

At one point we switch to the origin of Fox News, which McKay apparently deemed relevant to Cheney. Why? Because he voted against the “Fairness Doctrine” when in Congress back in the 70s.

There’s a montage of right-wing media personalities such as Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

Cheney, of course, wasn’t the only conservative politician to benefit from Fox News. The same way Barack Obama wasn’t the only politician to benefit from the invention of the teleprompter.

But because we’re given this image of “Cheney – the mastermind”, McKay tries to make it seem as if Cheney knew his vote against the obscure “Fairness Doctrine” would help him sell the Iraq war decades later. It’s not just an amazing stretch but also simply not relevant to Cheney’s life story.

McKay also mentions the Koch brothers and inserts stock footage of corporate interest groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute and ALEC. He doesn’t even name people but just wanted to show “Old Money Patriarchs” getting out of expensive cars. In slow-motion.

Again, completely unrelated to Cheney. Many of those organizations existed years before W. Bush’s tenure and exist to this day. Yes, they’re conservative think tanks. They help write conservative policy which is often representing corporate interests. Certainly a subject worth exploring, as many have over the past few decades. But why are they a part of Vice? Why, other than to somehow muddle anti-corporate sentiments into a messy montage of Cheney-related soundbites that is this film.

Those lines about Heritage or Cato or ALEC? They could be in a biopic about Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney – any modern Republican politician. And each time they’d be out of place.

It (sadly) reminds me of Team America: World Police. Remember that puppet-version of Tim Robbins, the head of the Film Actors Guild (or F.A.G.)? His famous (and hilarious) words: “Let me explain to you how this works. You see, the corporations finance Team America. And then Team America goes out, and the corporations sit there in their… In their corporation buildings, and, see, they’re all corporation-y, and they make money.”

In Team America it was only a silly and over-exaggerated parody of anti-corporate and anti-Bush sentiments in Hollywood. But looking at McKay’s writing, it apparently wasn’t that far off.

Speaking of Team America, of course the movie focuses on Iraq. If you’ve seen Stone’s W., you’ve basically seen this film’s portion about Iraq. Cheney had oil interests, Americans are stupid and Colin Powell was the lone voice of reason. That’s it. That’s all this movie gives us.

A scene in W. depicting Cheney and his team quarreling with Colin Powell, the saint whenever it comes to Bush’s cabinet portrayed by Hollywood, is virtually identical to multiple scenes in Vice.

The only difference is that Stone crafted a serious scene with an emotional score while McKay added some humor and ridiculousness to the situation.

But other than that, both movies tell the exact same version of Iraq.

Both movies go on to portray the false “Mission Accomplished” flag. Both tell us how Saddam was found to have no WMD. Both show Bush as a goofy guy who eats too much and speaks with an odd Southern accent.

In other words, there are no surprises.

I’m not going to research every single aspect of the film. I’m confident much of it has been well researched and is accurate. But there are three things I know for sure aren’t.

For one, everything about Cheney’s heart donor and his narration is pure imagination and without any fact or basis. McKay made up lines about a dead man whose identity was never made public.

In one of the ugliest moments of the film, our narrator is killed off at the same moment Cheney is dying at a hospital. He doesn’t spell it out like he does with everything else, but it appears as if McKay tries to imply that Dick Cheney killed a man to get a new heart. At least that’s how the movie made it seem to me.

There is zero evidence for Cheney murdering someone for a new heart. Just as there is zero evidence for Cheney’s heart donor being a veteran who hated him. But McKay, almost in a ruthless fashion mirroring Cheney, moves along with it anyways.

The second is regarding something that has been getting a lot of press recently. Remember the man Cheney shot in the face? It’s that one other fact people know about him. Well, he decided to go see the film which led to many news outlets running with headlines such as “The Lawyer Dick Cheney Shot in the Face Says He’s Definitely Going to See ‘Vice’.”

For whatever reason, McKay didn’t get that scene right. According to Harry Whittington, the lawyer Cheney accidentally shot, the scene wasn’t portrayed accurately. In Vice, Cheney is in a car while shooting Whittington. But there was no automobile involved. The accidental occurred while Cheney and Whittington were walking.

It’s trivial, yes. But it reduces the film’s credibility by making Cheney look unnecessarily callous.

And, well, third: Remember when Donald Trump called President Obama the “founder of ISIS”, without any evidence whatsoever? McKay manages to name Dick Cheney the true creator of ISIS.

You see, McKay pinpoints Colin Powell’s UN speech as the turning point for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to form his Islamic insurgency in Iraq which would later form into ISIS. And because Dick Cheney used Zarqawi’s vague connection to Iraq to justify the Iraq war, Cheney is portrayed as the true founder of the murderous Islamic State.

For one, I’m unaware of al-Zarqawi ever writing a biography. And for another, this is a desperate and almost comical attempt to present Dick Cheney as the man behind all the problems we have today.

At this point, an audience member is ready to name Dick Cheney the source of virtually every issue that plagues America. Climate change? Cheney. Poverty? Cheney. America’s broken tax system? Cheney. Fox News? Cheney. ISIS? Cheney and Cheney alone.

Thank goodness Cheney isn’t Jewish. Otherwise this might have become the alt-right’s favorite film.

If all of that wouldn’t be enough – if mentioning Fox News and the Heritage Foundation wouldn’t do it – McKay gives you some contemporary stock footage to drill it down. The Trump administration. Yes, the apolitical film about Dick Cheney has stock footage from controversial Trump-era policies.

Cheney was often called “Darth Vader”. I’m surprised McKay didn’t call him Kylo Ren. Or, well, comparing him to Donald Trump might have been worse.

Remember those pictures of caged immigrants going around during the recent family separation crises? Well, those pops up during a late montage. Alex Jones is in it too. And a man holding a MAGA sign. Plus a car driving through California wildfires. I’m not even describing it condescendingly, that’s how McKay wrote it.

Again, it’s a mystery to me as to why McKay had to do any of this. He had a character that is rich enough to allow for the avoidance of any of these contemporary political issues. Combined with the wit and cleverness of his writing, this could have been an excellent and indeed “surprising” film. Precisely the film Bale signed up for.

Instead, we got a film that is in denial. You see, McKay doesn’t want you to agree with me. He doesn’t want me to agree with myself. You know how I know this? Because after the credits roll, we cut to a focus group that was watching the film.

One of the members of the group screams how liberal the movie is while another screams back as to how it had to be fully vetted.

It’s a cheap attempt to tell an audience member who might have been thinking “Huh? This might indeed have a liberal bias” to throw the thought immediately out the window because “Hey! You don’t want to be like that guy in the focus group we all just laughed at, do you?”

My theory is that McKay might be talking to himself. A way of projecting. To justify his own writing.

Vice is many things. It’s tremendously well acted, has a solid score and is indeed refreshingly funny at times. But apolitical or surprising it is not.

Follow @martin_samoylov and @rereleasenews on twitter.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rerelease News.

Image: Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures

2 comments

  1. The movie may have its faults I agree.
    You are obviously an intelligent person.
    The problem is that most of the world is not as intelligent or educated as you.
    So I guess to combat that unbalance a depiction of some pretty disgusting realities has been portrayed with a fair bit of artistic licence.
    It’s a job well done in terms of shocking an audience into perhaps at least confronting the magnitude of the series of events that occurred as a result of the “Vice” himself either placing himself or being placed into those extrodanary positions of power.
    The results of which as you know have caused the reality we live with today.
    I am not a movie critic so perhaps I don’t have the skills to disect a movie the way you do but I must say I thought for the average punter out there it was a great movie that breached a subject in a somewhat comical light that was the tragedy you and I equally admit.
    What a mess made by a few was the reality portrayed.
    I thought well done.
    Would you or I have done a better or worse job given the opportunity?
    I would like to think we would have.
    Perhaps I’m dreaming on the left of centre too much?
    Nice article.
    Jeremy Nanson

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I think if the audience is seen as intelligent by the filmmakers, it will be intelligent. I don’t mind the comedy or the dramatization at all – I wish more biopics would try to do things differently and in a more entertaining way. What I had a problem with is just making up things such as who Cheney’s heart donor was. That, I think, goes a step to far. And the comedy is only fun when it is actually on-topic, but the film uses it when it goes into Fox News and interest groups for some reason when those things really shouldn’t be part of a Dick Cheney biopic.

      You’re right that the tragedy of the Iraq war and other Bush-era policies is very real and making audiences cope with that is not necessarily a bad thing. I just don’t think it should have been done in a Cheney biopic. As mentioned, Cheney alone didn’t create ISIS and he wasn’t the only one who supported going into Iraq. I feel like sacrificing substance for emotion should be done carefully and not carelessly, which is how I think “Vice” does it.

      I read some people suggest that perhaps McKay should have tried a documentary or HBO series. Maybe that would indeed have been better.

      Either way, I appreciate the comment!

      – Martin.

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