There’s a scene in Vice when a young Dick Cheney asks his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, what they stand for. Rumsfeld responds with 30 seconds of side-splitting laughter. It works as a gag, but it’s telling: This is not a film that seeks to understand its subject, one of the most important and least-known political figures of the last several decades. The essayist Michel de Montaigne had a quote from the Roman poet Terence engraved on a beam in his study: Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto. (“I am a man; nothing human is strange to me.”) Director Adam McKay definitely doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy; his Cheney is a grotesque.
Vice is not a penetrating biopic. Instead, it’s a rollicking, stylistically inventive comedy with tragic pretenses. Christian Bale does an amazing Dick Cheney, but it’s more of an impression than a performance. Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld are all superb. The pacing and editing are good. It’s worth a look, if only to take stock of how 9/11 and the wars that followed changed the country and set us on our current course.
Much of the comedy works; the tragedy doesn’t. Vice’s Cheney starts life as a ne’er-do-well; cleans up his act to keep his woman; becomes an eager servant of power in the Nixon regime; becomes obsessed with increasing presidential power though he knows that, as a Republican, he himself can’t be president because his daughter is a lesbian; makes some money in the private sector; and, finally, is asked by W. to be vice president, managing to negotiate an unusual level of responsibility for that office, particularly in overseeing military and energy concerns. By the end, Vice lays every 21st-century calamity at the foot of Cheney, including the birth of ISIS, the opiate crisis and the detention of migrant children. The tragedy, as Vice sees it, seems to be that a man like Cheney – someone who sought power for power’s sake and was willing to wage war on a country with a dubious connection to the 9/11 attack – ever existed.
The film misses the obvious tragedy for its subject: Cheney, a neocon who believed in America’s ability and duty to spread the twin gospels of democracy and capitalism to every corner of the world, has lived to see – mainly as a result of the war he launched – a new birth of isolationism. Cheney may have imagined that the country could come together, like it did after Pearl Harbor. Instead, it came apart, like it did in Vietnam. But this time the pendulum snapped back even more violently, with our current president openly questioning the alliances that formed America’s de facto postwar empire, as well as our responsibility (even our standing) to speak out against international human rights violations.
It’s impossible to overstate how appalling this turn of events must be for a cold warrior like Cheney. And to be responsible for it? Now that’s a tragedy.