Books, Arts & Manners

Incompetent Vice Swings at Dick Cheney and Misses

Christian Bale in Vice (Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures)
When it comes to conservatives, anything goes.

The initial warning is given before Vice even starts, in an onscreen note: It’s a “true story,” we’re told. But it’s hard to be strictly factually accurate, the note adds, because Dick Cheney is such a secretive bastard. So it’s really Cheney’s fault if anything in the movie happens to be wrong.

Yet at the end a character will break the fourth wall to assert that the whole thing is factual and say, sarcastically, “Because I have the ability to understand facts, that makes me a liberal?” That sounds like an invitation to consider the facts and logic of Vice. I accept.

Near the start, writer-director Adam McKay, who somehow segued from Will Ferrell movies to this InfoWars-style garbage dump, implies that Cheney’s father-in-law murdered his mother-in-law by drowning her in a lake. Huh? What does this have to do with Cheney? Is there more evidence for this than is presented in the movie, which is none? The movie’s Lynne Cheney, played by Amy Adams, also seems to think her dad murdered her mom. Does Lynne Cheney actually think this?

After dropping some light murder innuendo, McKay just bustles on. Dick Cheney (into whom Christian Bale disappears) is portrayed as a dirtbag who was kicked out of Yale for boozing and brawling. When he first arrives in Washington, he asks others what he is supposed to believe, because all he knows is that he wants to work for a charismatic White House official, Donald Rumsfeld (played as a sort of Machiavellian yokel by Steve Carell). Having Cheney ask someone what his philosophy should be is the kind of lazy screenwriting that typifies the film: It’s easiest for McKay to just put left-wing fantasy dialogue in the mouths of his characters.

He does this even more notoriously with the young Antonin Scalia when the then-future Supreme Court justice says, “If you, like myself, happen to believe in Article II of the Constitution . . .” Hang on, “believe in Article II?” From the mouth of Antonin Scalia, the one American most famously opposed to treating the Constitution as a matter of “belief” or a mystical text? Scalia continues by telling young Cheney that Article II (which grants the president a lot of authority, especially in wartime) gives the chief executive the power of “absolute executive authority, and I mean absolute.” Article II does not, of course, say the president can do absolutely anything, and Scalia would never have said so. It’s the equivalent of a scene showing young Barack Obama joining the Communist Party of Kenya while praying to Allah.

But when it comes to conservatives, anything goes. Another early scene has Cheney expressing disbelief that President Nixon would bomb Cambodia because “it would be illegal” and Nixon would need congressional authority to carry out a military strike. These words sound like McKay’s, not Cheney’s, meant to signal the audience that Cheney learned early to abandon all protocols. But presidents bomb countries all the time. President Obama bombed Libya and Syria without congressional authorization. I’ll await McKay’s movie about why this was evil. McKay also slips in a few scenes bashing the guidelines of Bush-administration lawyer (and NRO contributor) John Yoo for determining what is torture, and then he tell us the memos remain “in Justice Department computers,” by which he means they were in effect throughout the Obama years. That Obama retained these policies is somehow Cheney’s fault. McKay is either unaware that presidents are able to do things differently from previous presidents or is saying that Obama is so mentally feeble that he fell for Cheney’s mind-control tricks. (Neither is the truth, of course: The truth is that the Bush-Cheney policies were smart tools for fighting terror, so Obama retained most of them.)

Cheney is to blame for the launch of ISIS because he publicly mentioned the name of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, thus making him a superstar? (Al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in 2006, yet the subsequent deaths of hundreds of thousands at the hands of ISIS during the Obama years are, McKay implies, Cheney’s fault.) McKay simultaneously claims Cheney didn’t pay enough attention to Zarqawi and let him do anything he wanted for a year, then cuts to the 2005 London transit bombings. Yeah, remember when the Bush-Cheney administration was doing nothing about terrorism?

Vice claims that Bush started the Iraq War not because he (and Cheney) thought it was the right thing to do but because they needed a PR stunt to make Americans like their team. This logic is bizarre: The son of the president who enjoyed 90 percent approval ratings after winning his own war with Iraq, then got 38 percent of the vote when he ran for reelection the very next year, considered war with Iraq the best way to win reelection? McKay marvels at the sinister persuasion efforts of the Bush administration, which marks a bit of a change from that era, when Bush et al. were treated as colossal dummies by McKay et al. If the Iraq War was obviously an evil Republican plot to hoover up all of the oil and benefit Cheney’s Halliburton cronies, it’s strange that people like Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, and Christopher Hitchens backed it.

I had thought we had heard the end of liberals’ obsession with waterboarding suspected terrorists and with imprisoning them at Guantanamo Bay, given that President Obama once assassinated an unarmed American teenager with a drone strike, killed other Americans with drones, and kept Guantanamo Bay open. But, no, McKay uses Vice to rage against “enhanced interrogation” techniques. If Cheney had simply assassinated instead of waterboarded those three suspected terrorists, and killed some innocent bystanders in the process, McKay would either have to be okay with that or simply clarify that things that are fine when Democrats do them are outrageous when Republicans do them. (McKay is, of course, a Democratic-party donor and fundraiser, and he provided propaganda assistance to the Obama administration.)

Debunking all of these feeble points again 15 years later is as tiresome for me as it is for you, but memories fade while movies like Vice linger on home video forever, shaping conventional wisdom and even becoming conventional wisdom: People think Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from her house, though that was merely a joke Tina Fey made. Moreover, published reviews from film critics, whose politics as a group suggest Daily Kos meets Mother Jones, tend blithely to ignore factual, logical, and conceptual errors in movies made by their ideological allies.

Does mangling history ruin a movie? Not always. But I’ll discuss Vice as a work of cinema in another piece.

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