One can only imagine what the great Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius would write about our own imperial moment. From rugged colonial stock the union sprout, liberated itself from the British crown, declared itself the United States, expanded in both territory and military might, and birthed characters like Richard Bruce Cheney. Forever imbedded in the world’s bloody consciousness as “Dick,” Cheney’s shadow looms large over the last 40 years of American history in Adam McKay’s brilliant, savagely insightful Vice. It is both a biography of power and a reckoning with the republic’s spiral into a capitalist behemoth straddling the globe. Some may be taken aback by McKay’s sense of dark comedy, in which the halls of power are exposed as a nest of minds which are not particularly cultured, but ruthlessly focused on the wielding of influence for profit and control. In that great American tradition going back to Mark Twain and Gore Vidal, McKay is using his own art form as a tool of scorching iconoclasm, rendering official histories to dust and transforming Dick Cheney himself into a figure both titanic and tragic. It falls on Christian Bale and Amy Adams’s shoulders to embody figures full of pain and ravenous villainy who perform their drama on the world stage.
But before he begins his ascent to the heights of American power, Dick Cheney as played by Bale begins his journey as a hard-drinking brawler in the wildlands of Wyoming. His wife, Lynne (Adams), delivers the stinging ultimatum that either he change his ways or she will change husbands. As envisioned by McKay, it is Lynne Cheney whom in a sense we have to thank for the eventual chaos we are still withering. For it was her drive that sends Cheney into Washington, D.C. to get his first taste of power in a capital reeling from Watergate. A rough exterior hiding a more cunning mind, Cheney first finesses his chops under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), who cackles when asked what he believes in. Eventually Cheney becomes chief of staff to Gerald Ford, but exiles himself during the ascendance of Jimmy Carter and focuses on making money in the world of business. The Reagan and Bush I years bring Cheney back to the Oval Office, where he obsesses over the legal restrictions on executive power. When the millennium arrives, Cheney is truly thrust onto the stage of history when a BBQ-munching George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) taps (indeed begs) the snarling Dick to be his running mate. Fully in command of the state, Cheney crafts that most disastrous march of our time, the war in Iraq.
McKay’s brilliance is in taking this mixture of biography and recent history and envisioning it as riveting cinema abundant in wicked observations, while finding a strange pathos. In 2015 McKay fully made his mark as a political filmmaker with The Big Short, also starring Christian Bale, which gave onto itself the impressive task of making sense out of the 2008 economic crash. The capitalist fantasies that fueled massive borrowing and rigged numbers gain a clarity even Marx would have appreciated in the way McKay delivers information, at times utilizing celebrities like the late Anthony Bourdain to explain the housing bubble. But with Vice, McKay ventures Conrad-like into the political heart of darkness.
As with most great powers, to dramatize American history means to dig deep into the soul of larger than life personas the general public only knows through television- the same way the ancients knew their emperors through stone or medieval peasants through sketched portraits. McKay’s approach is a much more rambunctious version of what Oliver Stone achieved with his 1995 epic Nixon, which featured Anthony Hopkins in one of his great roles. Through Stone’s feverish tones and Hopkins’s capacity for transformation, Nixon becomes a haunted, scheming man eternally injured by life’s slights, forever paranoid and hiding a weakling within. The villain of Watergate is brought down to human level, even if Stone designs the film in a way that captures the vastness of history and how much damage Nixon caused to it. When he sits down with Mao in China, the Chairman can only grin at him and observe, “You are as evil as I am.” In Vice, McKay is painting a portrait culled from another one of our great modern villains, if not one even more damaging than Nixon. Stone himself gave us the first cinematic rendition of the Bush saga back in 2008, just as “Dubya” was leaving office, in W., an underrated cinematic biography starring Josh Brolin as a Bush tossed into power by his insecurities stemming from growing up under the shadow of his father. Richard Dreyfuss played Cheney as a shadowy Machiavellian, calling for the formation of “real empire” in the war room while making the case for eventually invading Iran (a scenario we could still see play out).
Vice envisions Washington as a combination of imperial hubris and cutthroat corporate culture, where only the sneakiest survive. Cheney gets his first taste of how it works through Donald Rumsfeld, who is played by Steve Carrell as a snarky operative prowling the Capitol, sniffing out the latest power plays. Together they huddle and watch as Henry Kissinger sneaks off to plan the bombing of Cambodia with Nixon. McKay cuts into Cheney’s visualization of just what bombing a Cambodian village entails, such as civilians incinerated in a hellfire of airpower. McKay will draw a link visually later with Iraqis facing the same, imperial destruction 30 years later when Cheney and Dubya decide to flex American might once more. The writing by the director snaps with a charged rhythm, giving speech to the urgency of life in a world of political wheeling and dealing. Cheney begins as a Democrat, but soon switches to being a Republican not because of any sudden conversion to conservative ideals, but because he likes Rumsfeld and Reagan’s lavish worship of wealth and merciless ascendancy. In a way Cheney is almost Nietzsche’s “The Last Man,” a being existing in a post-ideological, post-thinking age, described by Chris Hedges as thus, “The Last Man would wallow and revel in his ignorance and quest for personal fulfillment. He would be satisfied with everything that he had done and become, and would seek to become nothing more. He would be intellectually and morally stagnant, incapable of growth, and become part of an easily manipulated herd. The Last Man would mistake cynicism for knowledge.”
Once Cheney is absorbed by the Washington machine, he simply marches forward, blindly and obediently, biding his time as he rises, winning over those he needs to win over, from Rumsfeld to Ford and later the Bush clan. Yet the beast can have a heart, and a running theme is how his daughter Mary (Alison Pill), is herself gay, which poses a problem among the conservative, right-wing circles Cheney swims in. Mary is the one red line Cheney makes clear to Bush cannot be crossed. When Bush and Cheney take power in 2000, it is obvious Dick is the real power behind the throne, in essence taking command during the September 11, 2001 attacks. It is his chance to exploit the crisis to expand executive power, and along with an eager Rumsfeld and a shell-shocked Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), plans for the invasion of Iraq begin. In McKay’s sober version of events, the war is not motivated by any reason other than the cementing of American power in the Middle East. In one of the film’s most brilliant bits of satire, these men sit around a restaurant, their coming abuses offered as courses on a menu.
Visually, McKay style is an exuberant aria where he makes powerful points by using stock footage, still photos and angles that frame Cheney as a towering Caesar. On certain moments the frame will be still, at times to capture the absurdities of the powerful away from the podium, as when Bush munches on a drumstick. A mid-movie end credits sequence is savagely brilliant and one of the year’s great cinematic howlers. Photos of storms and tornados are used to emphasize the gales of history, especially since Cheney’s agenda firmly denies the perils of climate change, brewing political and literal tsunamis we are still living through. Cheney munches on sweets as he receives reports on possible Muslim targets for rendition, and McKay throws in real footage from the infamous Abu Ghraib tortures conducted by U.S. troops, reminding viewers that what those in power decree have real, bloody consequences. Narrating it all is Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a sort of one-man Greek chorus who represents the average American citizen swept up by Cheney’s policies. He tells Cheney’s story while watching television with his family, then as a soldier marching through the war zone of Iraq.
Vice uses Cheney as a guide into our recent history, dismissing any romanticized notions of the republic, charting the disastrous courses that have now brought us to the age of Trump. McKay has made a film in the tradition of literary works like Gore Vidal’s Burr, one of the great iconoclastic novels of American history, where the Founding Fathers are portrayed as flesh and blood men of ambition and intrigue. George Washington is vain and hungry for status, initially proposing that the title of President be switched for “His Mightiest.” Thomas Jefferson is a backstabbing dreamer, Alexander Hamilton a cowardly gossiper. Andrew Jackson becomes a duel-obsessed maniac. Aaron Burr, notorious villain of America’s founding, slayer of Hamilton in a duel, is slightly rehabilitated as the more honest and far-sighted of the Founders, still trying to stir the pot in his 80s. Like Vidal, McKay’s film dramatizes how states are not run by icons, but by individuals driven by their own private obsessions, torments, hates and invented perceptions. Cheney is not necessarily one dimensional in Vice, he has simply decided that power is what fuels his existence. He wants to run the world, not to make it better, but to simply run it. Such a persona can be so intimidating that when he accidentally shoots a friend and attorney in the face while hunting, it is Cheney who receives an apology.
To conjure such volumes of infamy is not easy and Christian Bale and Amy Adams rise to the occasion with stunning deliveries. It would be easy to say that half of Bale’s work is done by the film’s superb makeup, which transforms this man known as a muscled Batman to millions into the large, beefy Cheney. But he is not imitating the man, he is channeling this bulldozer. We see him transform from an eager to please staffer to a man at ease with power, snarling to a member of Congress to “go fuck yourself,” and becoming so used to heart attacks that once he feels his arm go numb he casually lets everyone know it’s time to head for the hospital. In a way the heart attacks become a metaphor for how nothing will get in the way of this man, not even his own constitution, which is itself quite impressive considering he is indeed still around. Amy Adams is a fierce intelligence and character as Lynn Cheney, evoking a personality that can indeed drive a man to become emperor. She is a less-murderous Lady Macbeth, a steely virago who can proceed towards a goal without doubt. When Cheney runs for office and suffers a heart attack, she still goes out and gives the public speeches on his behalf. Indeed there is a bedtime scene where Cheney and Lynn sit in bed, reciting Macbeth to each other. I am reminded of reading about how in the Shah’s Iran, it was the King of Kings’ sister who wielded even greater influence behind the doomed throne in the decades before the 1979 Revolution rendered it all to ashes.
The key shot is one of Cheney as silhouette, standing near the Oval Office, staring within. Vice is a great film not only because of the way it dramatizes the life of this most defining of vice presidents, but because it is a portrait of our common history. It is but one view into the kind of men that have shaped this world we now see beginning to slowly break like an iceberg. The music by Nicholas Britell is fittingly imperial, emphasizing the story with grand trumpets both somber and martial. History never ends, it is ever flowing. Cheney’s policies would shatter the Middle East, help breed deformations like ISIS, transform the presidency into more of an executive throne, now in the hands of a maddened would-be king. Near the end of the film there is a final blood sacrifice as Cheney needs a heart transplant and one of the citizens of his realm is struck by a car, granting him a new organ and more time. Part of what makes Vice so harrowing is that, in a way, we are tethered to men like Cheney as passengers on the ship of history, where men such as him are in full and ruinous command.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.