Ambitious, experienced and Cunning: ‘becoming a hard ass’

Disclaimer: anyone going to see Vice, who considers themselves an admirer, fan or supporter of the former Vice President of the United States of America, Richard B. Cheney, should anticipate disappointment upon seeing the film and consider themselves forewarned from this point on.

Writer and director, Adam McKay, best known for his creation “The Big Short”, pulls no punches in the biopic of the somewhat infamous VP. For any fellow ‘Big Short’ fans, I can reassure you that the same comedic timing, fourth wall breaks, and hyperbole exists — but they manifest in a different way… most obviously in that Vice follows the actions of one individual character rather than a larger event.

McKay’s illustration of Cheney is critical, at best, and he is not shy about leaving his opinions, as a private citizen, exposed in the narration of the controversial politician. Vice is not, and does not try to be, a biographical film. Instead, McKay’s narration on Cheney is used as a larger American political commentary told through the life and career of one of the country’s most influential politicians. This can be seen, in particular, in the significance McKay draws from the Vice President’s legacy.

In fairness, McKay is also cautious and quick to disclose in the beginning of the film, that he has taken his own creative liberties in illustrating Cheney’s life…

What makes the premise of Vice so interesting is simultaneously its biggest creative challenge. To state the obvious: Dick Cheney is a notoriously private person. This is not to say that Cheney, or his family, shy away from the media, because this certainly isn’t true. Yet, there are huge gaps of information regarding Cheney’s life, both professionally and personally, that the public has limited confirmed knowledge of.

Case in point: the ‘deliberate’ vs. ‘accidental’ shooting of Harry Whittington, in Texas, during a hunting excursion (the anniversary of which was earlier this week) for which Whittington apologized for, and Cheney did not. The Whittington shooting, in particular, is awing in part because of how ridiculous it is (because we can all kind of agree that Cheney, an active sportsman [fly fisher and hunter] is unlikely to have honestly and accidentally shot someone from such a close range … right?).  

Historically, Cheney has made it a habit of being dismissive and defensive when questioned by political peers or the media on issues of state or on his own life. So, in short, McKay’s decision to make a movie about Cheney is not at all that surprising. But let’s complicate that…

Cheney, despite being considered an influential leader within the GOP for the past few decades, is not that popular even within his own party. As a political science student (a.k.a. nerd), I would argue that he isn’t, actually, a ‘true’ conservative — mostly because I, admittedly, buy into McKay’s depiction of Cheney seeking power for individual reasons rather than ideological ones (eg. seeking to expand ‘the power of the executive’ [aka “Unitary Executive”] during George W. Bush’s administration, a fairly, anti-conservative initiative to pursue).

Furthermore, Cheney is not the most charismatic politician to have emerged in modern American history — and this was a main criticism of him when he was campaigning for the Senate and later for president.

Now that we know how the story ends (*cough* the Iraq War *cough* Halliburton *cough*) hindsight leads to a more negative opinion of Cheney and his career. This is marked by the rise and fall of his influence during the Bush administration, or more so, how the American populous turned on the once lauded ‘experienced’ and ‘knowledgeable’ Cheney, who was arguably seen as a check  on presidential power for Bush (rather than a predatorial figure seeking to expand it).

Film critic, A.O. Scott’s, take on Vice as “liberal ‘rage-bait’” and an oversimplification of all the problems facing the United States as direct consequences to the former vice president are fair. As I said before, the movie is not kind to Cheney… which is sort of inevitable since the concept of the film is about one individual, but that was also a deliberate creative decision … and sort of the point.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Christian Bale embodies Cheney in every which way in Vice. But the biggest creative feat for both Bale and McKay was still making Cheney a sympathetic character – (again, no spoilers)— even greater when they make him a pitiful one. This is ultimately the deepest cut McKay administers.

It’s the questions McKay raises on governing, pride, ideology, family and ambition that make Vice a dynamic film. Yes, lead actors in Vice and McKay himself have openly said that they hope the film will encourage Americans to become more civically engaged; but McKay does so in a specific way. Even in the title, he is aiming, successfully or not, to ask broader questions on humanity and is appealing to the audiences’ capacity for empathy both toward and against the vice president and his decisions. Furthermore, he challenges us to apply those same questions we ask, in hindsight, to a once powerful man, to the establishment within our government that still remains. I would argue Cheney is merely a vehicle for broader criticisms McKay has with the U.S.

Simply, anyone seeing Vice who leaves thinking it was ‘just a rant’ missed the point.

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