I received my Academy screener of “Vice” — Adam McKay’s intermittently black comic biopic of Dick Cheney — just a few days before its Christmas opening and watched it almost immediately, even though I knew I would hate it.
I did. It had exactly the retrograde, conformist Hollywood politics I expected. What I didn’t expect was that it would be an aesthetic jumble and quite boring.
Nevertheless, “Vice” led the pack of Golden Globe nominations with six and is an early favorite for the Best Picture Oscar. So unfortunately, due to the biased state of our educational system, this could well make the movie the definitive statement on the Iraq War for a whole generation of ignorant young Americans. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth commenting about.
Briefly, regarding the aesthetics, the major performances are all over the place, ranging from caricature to meticulous imitation. On the caricature side we have Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, acting as if they were auditioning for Saturday Night Live circa 2005. On the meticulous side is Christian Bale’s Cheney. The actor mimics the former vice president extraordinarily well physically and vocally, in all ways but intellectually. You never get the sense of why Cheney does anything, except on the most superficial, self-serving level. Similarly, you never get an inkling from Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney that the woman could have written her superb biography of James Madison that was published recently.
Of course, these are the writer-director’s choices, just as are the serio-comic interjections that come up periodically to interrupt the scenes, images of beating hearts, etc., as if he doesn’t trust his own narrative. (They worked better in his earlier “The Big Short.”) They didn’t make me laugh or think, nor did the tedious narration designed to guide the audience.
As I mentioned, however, those are just the signs of another mediocre movie. You may differ on that and who cares?
The real problem is that the history of the Iraq War is cherry-picked and rewritten in the most predictable manner. It contains the usual shallow blather about WMDs. The canard of “blood for oil” is also brought up. But the main idea is that Dick Cheney and his cabal–Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby flit by, although most viewers wouldn’t have a clue who they really were after seeing this movie–caused the war in Iraq.
This is, in a word, nonsense.
Roll back to the world of early 2003 — hard to believe it’s going on sixteen years. America was still reeling from September 11, the most shocking attack in our history, even more than Pearl Harbor because it was aimed directly at our economic and cultural heart. The damages were huge. Action was taken immediately against Afghanistan to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven so that this could never happen again.
But that was not enough. To many, if not most, of us something was seriously awry with the Arab Middle East. The downtrodden people there had been brutally oppressed by despots and fundamentalists for centuries. That must have explained why al-Qaeda rose up. If only we could liberate them, they would be hugely grateful and choose our ways just as all people naturally would. No more rape rooms and homosexuals being thrown off roofs.
Obviously, we were mistaken. We didn’t reckon with the overweening power of Islam and tribalism, nor with the hatred of us. But the original impulse was not to steal oil. It was actually idealistic. In that world of 2002-2003, almost everyone I knew was to some degree a neoconservative. Even Democrats like Hillary and Kerry were neocons of a sort. Everyone wanted to free the Middle East, including, of course, Cheney, Wolfowitz, etc. Overcoming the despicable Saddam was the way to do it. Ron Paul, and once in a while, Donald Trump were about the only people opposing it. (Of course there were more, but they were a minority. It would be interesting to know where writer-director McKay stood at that point. The film doesn’t tell us.)
This website too in its early period (2005 or so) was suffused with that idealism that proved to be naive. Remember “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”? Or the blog “Iraq the Model” written by two dentist brothers in Baghdad who wanted democracy for their country? They were (still are) splendid people. We were all so happy seeing the photo of the smiling Iraqi woman with her finger dipped in ink after she voted.
We learned a harsh lesson. Iraq did not become Denmark and the Middle East remained, well, the Middle East. Neoconservatives these days are few.
(Interestingly, Hillary was one of the last, leading Obama, if we are to believe what we read, to go after Gaddafi, even after the Libyan dictator had yelled “uncle.”)
But you would never know from “Vice” that Dick Cheney might have thought that way too then, that he had a tinge of idealism beneath the gruff exterior. He had to be the boogie man, someone to blame for everyone else’s mistakes. The movie is a combination of projection and virtue signaling.
To drive a nail in its intended coffin, the film concludes with Cheney advising his daughter Liz, then running for Congress in Wyoming, to publicly disavow gay marriage when his other daughter, Mary, is in one. This act of realpolitik cum family betrayal is, to say the least, unattractive. (DISCLOSURE: I have met all three of these people and liked them.) But again the film does not put it in context. I wonder how McKay reacted when Barack Obama, as David Axelrod wrote in his book, deliberately lied about opposing gay marriage at a mass religious gathering in Orange County in the early years of his presidency. (Hillary Clinton did similar.) He probably ignored it for what he thought was the “greater good.”
As you might guess, I won’t be voting for this movie. I would also advise against seeing it. These people should not be rewarded for their execrable distortion of history.
Roger L. Simon – co-founder and CEO Emeritus of PJ Media – is an award-winning author and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.