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Between virtue and vice

Pasquale S. Toscano

 Adam McKay
Vice (2018)


I met Dick Cheney in early 2016 when the idea of Donald Trump becoming president seemed downright risible. Much has changed, of course. But I still remember how the former vice-president’s unapologetic command of the room impressed me: the way his lips snarled when responding to a question; the raspy growls that occasionally punctuated his speech; the funny jokes he cracked about his time on Capitol Hill. Which is all to say, this man, at one point the most powerful person in the world, was sitting not a foot away from me, at my undergraduate alma mater, Washington and Lee University, in rural Lexington, Virginia. The event: Mock Convention, a quadrennial tradition begun in 1908 to predict the presidential nominee for the party out of power.

In 2016, that meant we were hosting a Republican party convention with a budget of three-quarters-of-a-million dollars and guests that included former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, conservative pundit Ann Coulter, and, of course, Dick Cheney. When he approached the podium (after meeting me and the rest of the Steering Committee), he faced boos and obvious derision. Some people can pretend to be Republicans only for so long. But it didn’t faze him. What I saw was an expert political operative who honestly believed he had made the world a safer place over his eight years in the George W. Bush administration. Cheney clearly realized he wasn’t popular but didn’t care, not only because he had accrued power available to no other vice-president in American history but because he fancied himself as a parent willing to spank his children to teach them a lesson.

I happen to disagree with this approach, and most of what Dick Cheney did in office. But by the end of his speech, I realized that a long and complex psychological process must have unfolded for Cheney to justify, at least to himself, his streak of questionable, even reprehensible, decisions.

Three years later, then, I was hoping that Adam McKay’s biopic Vice would dramatize the vice-president’s compelling interiority. I was woefully let down.

Chronicling Dick Cheney’s life from college to the end of Bush’s presidency, Vice is interested merely in caricaturing its subject and his ideological allies, a particular shame because of the film’s superb cast, which boasts a whopping thirteen Academy Award nominations and two wins for their collective body of work. Even so, the talents of Christian Bale (Dick Cheney), Amy Adams (as his wife Lynne), Steve Carell (U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), and Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush) went so underutilized that far more exciting than the acting—which for Bale consisted mostly of grunts and grimaces—was the stellar work of make-up artists Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, Patricia Dehaney.

At times, it would even have been possible to believe I was watching the real Cheney—thanks also to Bale’s 45-pound weight gain—the real Lynne, the real Bush, and most surprisingly, the real Rumsfeld. But McKay’s screenplay contravened this seamless conflation between reality and fiction because his characters were so classically Machiavellian that they emerge as one-dimensional paper dolls of their historical selves.

At no point is this truer than when Cheney, still a Congressional staffer for the older Rumsfeld, asks his boss what they believe in. “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld guffaws, marveling at why anyone in politics would ask such a silly question. The implicit message sticks. From then on, Cheney eschews the troubling demands of principles altogether. Politics becomes singularly about power, and the rest of the film tracks its antihero’s steady but sure descent into villainy to amass it. By the end, there’s no humanity left. He (literally) becomes heartless.

It’s not hard to speculate why politics as power is thematized: America currently has a president whose own motivations for seeking the office remain disparagingly suspect. So is it any wonder, in Donald Trump’s world of alternative facts and petty insults, the Mueller investigation and wildly ignorant claims about climate change, that McKay would deploy bombastic farce in favour of severe realism? Probably not.

Yet McKay does attempt to humanize his subject at times, never mind that the attempts fail: Cheney is loyal to Rumsfeld, until he demands the beleaguered Secretary’s resignation in one of the most unexpectedly haunting scenes of the film.

He’s also depicted as a committed family man, who accepts his daughter Mary’s homosexuality and slinks away from the public limelight, lest she be publicly ridiculed. Later, when Bush cajoles him out of retirement, the headstrong running-mate gives it to him straight: “I can’t come out against gay marriage.” In fact, at a time when many Republicans, including the president himself, were supporting a Constitutional amendment to restrict marriage only to heterosexual couples, Cheney argued that it was a state’s rights issue and during the 2004 vice-presidential debate insisted that “[w]ith respect to the question of relationships, my general view is that freedom means freedom for everyone. People . . . ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

The only issue is that by the end of the movie, when Cheney’s other daughter Liz, who’s running to be one of Wyoming’s U.S. senators, is getting thumped by an incumbent who claims she’s weak on gay marriage, Dick and Lynne give her the go-ahead to say she’s always supported a traditional view of the institution. McKay’s Cheney simply nods in assent, a move redolent of Vito or Michael Corlione (without any of Francis Ford Coppola’s complex characterization). I have to imagine, however, that the conversation in reality was much longer and the decision much harder, especially since Cheney had risked his standing in the GOP for years over the subject of marriage equality.

On the one hand, the scene indicates how terrifyingly personal American politics has become, whole families being rent apart over what should be a simple matter of human dignity. But on the other, it reveals why Vice fails in its efforts to comment upon Cheney, and by extension, Trump: its own outlandish exaggerations undermine whatever serious points it tries to make. The final scene of Godfather I—when Michael Corleone, who once pledged never to participate in the family business, closes the door on his wife Kay to confer with mafia underlings—chills audiences to the bone because we believe in the transformation that’s transpired, from Michael the straight-laced veteran to Michael the faithful son to Michael the avenger and, finally, to Michael the godfather.

In contrast, the culmination of Cheney’s perfidy—which at last infects the previously sacrosanct realm of family—doesn’t pack an emotional, or cerebral, punch: the vice-president mutates from down-on-his-luck Yale drop-out to callous political titan, but without any psychological nuance that might impel its viewers to invest, or believe, in the particular narrative that Vice strives to promote.

What all of this points to is that Vice doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. Sometimes the film channels the nearly-slapstick, but effective, parody of a Saturday Night Live skit (think Tina Fey’s 2008 Sarah Palin), at other points aspiring to the hard-hitting political analysis à la All the President’s Men or JFK. Completely unmoored, the movie works successfully in neither mode and is consigned to generic no-man land’s as a result. One minute, I found myself laughing at the inverted power dynamic between Cheney and Bush, the next, gaping with horror at scenes of “enemy combatants” being waterboarded. All of which, as you can imagine, made for a film experience that seemed to be disorienting for the sheer sake of disorientation.

This sense of pandemonium is compounded by McKay’s predilection for postmodern gimmicks—not the intellectually rigorous tactics of Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon but clumsy, derivative eschewals of linear and cohesive narrative: credits come mid-movie and scenes from Cheney’s life suffer through superimposed text and interspersed images, such as a hunting cheetah, which ostensibly comment on the story but actually kill whatever dramatic buzz had been forming.

An equally heavy-handed gesture in his quest to depict Cheney’s treachery is McKay’s decision to have the movie narrated by the soldier in Iraq (Jesse Plemons) whose heart eventually becomes Cheyney’s via transplant. Actually, the vice-president’s body suffers multiple heart attacks throughout Vice, so often that they become a structuring device, segmenting one portion of his life from another in an otherwise chaotic cinematic experience. Even this is troubling, though, because they’re used for laughs, along with Bale’s utterly-transformed, bulging body, and Cheney’s poor eating habits, without so much as a thought regarding how close to the line of fat-shaming all of this comes. To top it off, we’re also confronted with the image of his corroded heart after it’s removed.

What most discourages me, however, is that McKay begins to ignore Adams’ impressive Lynne about halfway through the movie, despite that she’s the most complex character—who admits her frustration with misogynism—and carries the most interesting scene in Vice, during her husband’s campaign to be a Wyoming congressman. The candidate himself has just suffered his first cardiac event, so his wife hits the trail for him, travelling around the state and energizing voters who would not have voted for Dick otherwise. In one telling instance, she—the lone woman onstage—addresses a crowd of mostly shirtless men about how completely people in Washington have forgotten about the average Joe: minorities are taking their jobs, affirmative action is screwing them over, and as opposed to women in New York, ladies in Wyoming prefer to wear their bras.

Donald Trump, of course, used similar rhetoric—and won. But Vice doesn’t engage with these fears and beliefs—ugly ones, sure, but wildly popular attitudes too. Instead, McKay is content to dismiss the enthusiastic men whom Lynne animates only as (at the very least, ignorant) pawns in the Cheneys’ rise to power. This is symptomatic of McKay’s larger struggle with creating believable, captivating characters. But it also reminds me of why I find Vice so obnoxious: it’s not the film that American politics needs right now. If Democrats—as McKay and his actors surely are—have any hope of beating Trump in 2020 they need to figure out how and why he became president. Rather than resorting to cheap laughs and caricatures, they need to listen to people who voted for him without normalizing these voters’ views. In short, they need to listen to Republicans like Cheney.

I’m thankful I had the opportunity to do this in 2016. The audience members of Vice will be far less fortunate.


Pasquale S. Toscano is reading for an MSt in Greek and Latin languages and literature, although his real passion is Milton.