Dick Cheney will forever be known as the man who put the “vice” into “Vice President”. While the Trump administration continues to sink into a legal quagmire we can look back at Cheney and marvel at how he ever got away with it. His continuing prosperity, indeed his very existence, suggests that his contract with the devil was vetted by a top legal firm.
Adam McKay continues the strand of dark, political comedy he gave us in The Big Short (2015) with a portrait of a professional non-entity who rose to be the most powerful man in the United States, and arguably the world. Successful politicians are known for their charisma but Cheney’s negative charisma acted like a black hole, drawing every other political entity into its maws. Whenever his face appeared in front of the cameras it was reliably bland, expressionless, deadpan.
Cheney is played by Hollywood’s most elastic actor, Christian Bale, who bulked up for a part in which he is almost unrecognisable. Amy Adams is easier to spot under the blonde wig in which she impersonates Dick’s wife, Lynne. The prototype for her portrayal seems to have been Lady MacBeth, as it is Lynne’s ultimatums that bring the wayward, young Dick back to his career path and ignite a boundless, unscrupulous ambition.
The Cheneys must be among the most repellent characters ever to be the focus of a major Hollywood film, but it’s not because they cackle over evil schemes like the supervillains in a Marvel comic. On the contrary, they display a relentless, single-minded focus on power and self-enrichment that doesn’t allow for flamboyant display. Cheney had the personality of a cane toad and a keen sense of his own limitations. Not burdened by the narcissistic urges of figures such as Donald Trump or Donald Rumsfeld, he recognised that a low profile could be an asset rather than a liability.
Cheney would never follow Rumsfeld’s lead in sitting down for a 33-hour interview with leading documentarian, Errol Morris, In Morris’s film, The Unknown Known (2013), Rumsfeld comes across as a fantasist who takes no responsibility for his actions, and has no regrets. He obsesses over the meaning of words, as if he could refashion history semantically. He justifies the invasion of Iraq with trite, sophistical formulae: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.
One could never imagine Cheney, as portrayed in this film, bantering with an interviewer. His very relationship with Rumsfeld (played with leering briliance by Steve Carell) is a study in Machiavellian intrigue, beginning during his days as an intern during the Johnson adminstration, when he made himself indispensible to the outspoken congressman from Illinois.
Nixon grew tired of Rumsfeld and sent him as ambassador to Belgium to keep him away from the White House. Following Watergate, Cheney had attained enough power to bring Rumsfeld back as a Republican clean-skin. The two men recognised each other’s amorality and worked as a team – one in the spotlight, the other in the back room. They played the naïve George W. Bush for a fool until the troubles in the Gulf became too much of a scandal. At that point, Cheney cut Rumsfeld loose.
Was it really as simple as that? Mckay has drawn on at least two detailed studies of Cheney, but he has to interpolate a lot of conversations and conspiracies to explain the historical facts. Much of the detail of the film must remain speculative, although there’s no ambiguity about the worst abuses of power.
The fulcrum of the story is Cheney’s meeting with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), when he agrees to stand as Vice President. Cheney knows that VP is largely a ceremonial role but he sees the possibilities of turning it into something much grander, particularly with a President that has no idea about domestic or foreign policy.
Today we know that Saddam Hussein never had any weapons of mass destruction, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were so intent on waging war they acted as if the danger to America was immediate and self-evident. Their efforts brought about devastation and massive loss of life in Iraq; the unnecessary deaths of thousands of US servicemen; the illegal use of torture to extract information from suspects; the illegal tapping of American phones, and eventually the rise of the group that became known as ISIS.
Cheney saw the Gulf War as an opportunity, as it allowed him to award lucrative contracts to Halliburton, the firm for which he acted as CEO before returning to the White House. Although he might not have taken his cut while working in the White House, his personal gains from Halliburton have been estimated at US$44 million.
This is so gruesome McKay had no option but to present it as a comedy, as Armando Iannucci did with The Death of Stalin. Accordingly, the story speeds along at a cracking pace, pausing every so often to let us appreciate the momentous turning points in Cheney’s career or to absorb the gravity of something he has done.
It would be impossible to watch this movie without thinking of the current incumbent of the Oval Office – a man ready to exploit every legal device, every strengthening of Presidential power that Cheney brought to the administration. But how clumsy Donald Trump looks alongside this remorseless, invisible controller. One can imagine Trump wearing an orange jumpsuit while Cheney continues to enjoy his fly-fishing.
Written & directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, Don McManus, Bill Camp
USA, rated M, 132 mins