‘Vice’ purports to be a biopic about Dick Cheney, who was Vice-President under George W Bush after having been a Washington insider for many years, starting with the Nixon administration as a sometime protégé of another Washington power figure, Donald Rumsfeld.
Both men reached the height of their power and fame, or notoriety, for their roles in planning the US response to the 9/11 outrage – the so-called ‘war on terror’ which infamously included the war in Iraq.
The problem with this movie is with the tone. It should not have been told as comedic drama.
An announcement at the beginning says ‘This is a true story, or as true as we can find out, given what a secretive man Dick Cheney is. But we did our f***ing best’.
Bang goes any claim Adam McKay might have to making a serious critique of Cheney’s character, or of the Iraq war and its causes and conduct for that matter.
Whatever you think of Cheney and Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq, the subject matter is so morally grave that it should be treated with appropriate seriousness, not undergraduate sarcasm.
It’s though he’s trying to outdo Mike Moore.
The characters he doesn’t like are almost cartoonish villains. Take Steve Carrell’s performance as Donald Rumsfeld. Carrell plays him as a kind of Machiavellian Groucho Marx. It’s a comic tour de force, but should it be? For example: Early on, Cheney is working as Rumsfeld’s intern. Rumsfeld impresses on him the importance of hard work and loyalty, and Cheney asks ‘Rummy’ what these are for. ‘What do we believe in?’ he asks. And Carrell/Rumsfeld laughs an evil cackle that truly does border on the cartoonish…..’Oh that’s a good one! What do we believe in!? Mwah-hahahahaaaa!’ Now, maybe Rumsfeld WAS that much of a cynic that the only thing that interested him was the exercise of power for its own sake, but just possibly he might have been a conservative patriot doing what he sincerely thought was best for America, and unless you KNOW that he replied to Cheney’s question that way, you shouldn’t make up something as damning as that cackle. McKay stops just short of having him rub his hands together like the villain in a silent movie who’s just tied the heroine to the railway line.
Cheney is portrayed as a dumb oaf who only gives up drunken partying under threat of divorce from his wife, and who only gets a foothold in the White House because of his willingness to be Rumsfeld’s unquestioning enforcer. In fact at the time he already had a masters degree in politics. And while he DID work for Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld was not his only White House employer, nor even his first.
McKay makes use of surreal elements which do nothing, I think, but add to the gonzo nature of the storytelling. Cheney leaves politics after having been Defence Secretary under George Bush Senior. He makes a lot of money with the oil company Halliburton. After the Clinton presidency George Bush Junior invites Cheney back as his running-mate, to be Vice-President if they win, which they do. The way McKay tells it, Cheney decides that being Veep is a job not worth having unless he can have some real power. So there’s a long conflab with Dubya, where Cheney sets out his conditions for accepting the nomination as running-mate. He wants to run all the important portfolios, basically, including Defense. We keep cutting away to shots of a fancy fishing lure dancing along the water……thus driving home the message that he’s ‘playing’ the hapless Bush like a fish. Geddit?
And there’s another surreal scene where Cheney is out dining with his closest henchmen, including two devious lawyers, in a classy restaurant. They’ve all been working towards the Iraq invasion, against the advice of cooler heads in the White House like Colin Powell and even Condy Rice. Anyway, the lawyers have got things set up nicely: they’ve articulated this doctrine of Unitary Executive Theory, which basically means the President and/or the Vice-President should have absolute power and whatever they do is legally right. To help us – the audience – along, the voiceover says ‘this is the power that belonged to Kings and Pharaohs’, and we are shown helpful stills of sundry kings and pharaohs to help us get the point.
Anyway, as I said, this evil claque is plotting the necessary legal and physical infrastructure for the Iraq invasion. A waiter comes along and offers a menu, on which are the following items: a) the definition of opponents in the war on terror as ‘enemy combatants’ who can be detained indefinitely in b) Guantanamo Bay – the jail not susceptible to the laws of the United States. Then there’s c) ‘extraordinary rendition’, the doctrine allowing the administration to send enemy combatants for d) ‘enhanced interrogation’ – essentially torture – to places that allow it. ‘We’ll take the lot’, says Cheney. ‘A wise choice sir,’ says the waiter obsequiously. Then someone says ‘it’s time to take Iraq’, and they all laugh uproariously.
I mean really! Obviously these terrible matters were discussed at the highest levels, but like this?
We only see the US doing bad things. There are quick flash edits from Abu Ghraib prison, but we don’t see people falling from the Twin Towers, or people being beheaded by Isis, though this is referred to. Even-handed it is not.
There is one glaring falsehood in McKay’s story. He has Cheney ordering the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, in order to spite her husband Joe Wilson for not supporting the administration’s line that Saddam Hussein was looking to buy raw uranium in Niger. It was a move that ended Plame’s career, but the truth of the matter is that Richard Armitage, then Deputy Secretary of State, blurted the information about Plame during an aggressive press conference. He says it was inadvertent, but the point is it wasn’t Cheney.
Cheney is unfailingly portrayed as awkward or repulsive. There is a long sequence where he is shown gargling. Nobody looks good when they’re gargling. Then there’s his heart attack and subsequent transplant. In fact – spoiler alert – the story is partly narrated by the eventual donor. It’s a curious device. We are shown inexplicably long still shots of the heart just sitting there in its gore, and long excruciatingly bloody scenes of the transplant operation. Why? Just so the donor’s parents can say ‘he didn’t even thank us’?
This may be true…but my point is you could make a very persuasive and heartfelt argument against Cheney’s character and the Iraq War without resorting to the cheap, silly tricks that Adam McKay uses.