There is very little to learn from Vice, a new biopic of Dick Cheney, unless you know very little about the Bush years. Written and directed by Adam McKay, Vice is not designed as a history lesson. Even more than McKay’s take on the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short, the film is structured as a narrative essay with an oversimplified thesis. Dick Cheney, Vice tells us, is responsible for almost everything wrong with America today under Donald Trump.
Beginning in 1963, Cheney (Christian Bale) is an aimless loser. He’s flunked out of Yale and has retreated to his native Wyoming, where he drinks lots of whiskey, gets into bar fights, and works for a utility company. After he’s arrested for his second DWI, he has a fateful intervention. His high school sweetheart, Lynne Vincent (Amy Adams)—depicted as an almost Lady MacBeth-like partner in ambition, who sees her future husband as the only way for her, as a woman, to get close to the halls of power—tells him to either get his act together or say goodbye. Cheney, in the shame of his hangover, looks her in the eye and promises to never disappoint her again. So begins the Shakespearian saga of a partnership that will change the course of history.
The rest of the film goes back and forth between Cheney’s political rise and family life. He goes from getting an internship on Capitol Hill, where he becomes a protégé of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to working in the Nixon and Ford administrations and serving in Congress until he becomes George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense. During that time, he learns the mechanics of governance and influence. At one point, Cheney meets with a young Antonin Scalia, then a lawyer at the Justice Department, to learn about the unitary executive theory, the notion that the president’s power over the executive branch is unlimited. As a congressman, he lends support to the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, opening the way for right-wing talk radio and Fox News. Neither of these events are treated with a shred of complexity. McKay describes their impact in the tone of a cable news commentator and introduces them with painfully on-the-nose dialogue. (“Dick, I just wanted to say thank you for getting the House not to override the president’s veto of the Fairness Doctrine,” says Vice President Bush. “Not a problem,” Cheney replies. “Happy to get rid of any big government regulations.”)
There is one moment when Cheney becomes genuinely endearing. After his teenage daughter Mary gets into a car accident, she comes out to her parents as gay. “It doesn’t matter, sweetheart,” Cheney tells her. “We love you no matter what.” He later declines to run for president, not wanting Mary to go through the trauma of having her sexual orientation weaponized against him.
But when, in 2000, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate, Cheney senses an opportunity to have unprecedented power with much less scrutiny. He convinces Bush to let him have more responsibility than the average Veep—“managing the bureaucracy, overseeing the military, energy, foreign policy …” Once in office, he puts into effect everything he learned throughout the previous four decades. He propagates dubious facts to sell the Iraq war and shrewdly reframes political issues to his advantage—most infamously, by referring to torture tactics as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” McKay depicts the administration as masters of ruthlessly Orwellian linguistic trickery. One scene shows GOP pollster Frank Luntz running various euphemisms by a focus group: “Instead of global warming, which we all agree sounds very scary, we call it . . . climate change?”
The subtext is clear: as the most powerful vice president in American history, Cheney created the conditions for a Donald Trump to emerge. The disregard of democratic norms, the use of “alternative facts”—these are not novel inventions of this president. Vice argues that Trump is not a break from the trajectory of the Republican Party, but its culmination.
Of course, Cheney’s own grip on power was not absolute. He was no longer able to sway Bush in the second term in the way he was in the first. According to Peter Baker’s fine book on the Bush presidency, Days of Fire, he was largely usurped by Condoleezza Rice as the president’s biggest influence on foreign policy.
McKay’s film, which comes off at times as conspiratorial, suffers from certain gaping holes. There’s no trace in Vice that Cheney and Bush ever had a falling out. At one point, Cheney asks his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, to leak the covert identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, but the film never comes back to that controversy. It was, of course, when Bush later spurned Cheney’s request to pardon Libby that their relationship ruptured. McKay likely left it out because it would discredit his central premise that Cheney was Bush’s puppet master.
One thing McKay gets right—beyond casting Christian Bale, whose performance is the number one reason to see this film—is Vice’s climax. In 2014, Cheney guides his daughter Liz’s political career. While running in the GOP primary for a Wyoming Senate seat, she gets attacked for supporting same-sex marriage, as her sister, Mary, is wedded to another woman. Liz meets with her parents in their living room to figure out what to do. After looking Lynne in the eye, just as he did a half-century earlier, Cheney gives Liz a nod. A moment later, she’s on television vowing to oppose gay marriage, humiliating and alienating Mary, and the family’s bond is irreversibly broken.
Family, in the end, is not Cheney’s deepest loyalty. His legacy, the film’s narrator says, is as “a dedicated and humble servant to power.” It’s an unoriginal point, but McKay portrays Cheney to be emblematic of what the Republican Party has really become about: not a set of ideas, not a vision of America’s role in the world, but a commitment to sustaining its own power, no matter the costs.