Under the Radar

'Vice' Credits Dick Cheney With the War on Terror

Christina Bale and Amy Adams star as Dick and Lynne Cheney in "Vice." (Annapurna)

No matter what his politics might tell him to think about former Vice President Dick Cheney, writer/director Adam McKay can't help but admire the man in "Vice" (out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital). Oscar-nominated actor Christian Bale (and his Oscar-winning makeup) fully embrace the man and unreservedly celebrate his ambitions.

Like McKay's 2008 financial crash movie "The Big Short" (which earned him a screenwriting Oscar), the director skews reality with characters who speak directly to the camera, surreal recreations of real events and even a fake-Shakespeare interlude.

If someone really agrees with Cheney's view of the world, then it's hard to see "Vice" as an attack on the man. He's the hero of his own story, and McKay gives him a moment at the end of the film in which Bale gives a full-throated defense of the actions he's taken over the course of the movie.

McKay made this movie because he's fascinated by the Unitary Executive Theory of constitutional law, a view that holds that the president has complete control of the executive branch of government. After 9/11, this approach justified actions that, depending on your perspective, either protected the country in a time of crisis or unconscionably expanded government powers over U.S. citizens. Actually, there's another perspective that would argue that it did both.

It's a swamp, and Dick (fueled by the ambitions of his wife Lynne, played by Amy Adams) sees himself as the guy who can lead the people to dry land. George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) is a lightweight who cedes enormous power to his veep, and Cheney's not afraid to use it, even when it means finishing off his former mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) once things get hot after the Iraq War bogs down.

The whole film is narrated by a young veteran named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who has an important (but fictionalized) role to play in Cheney's life.

It's Cheney who begins drawing up plans to invade Iraq on Inauguration Day, and it's Cheney who takes command in the White House situation room on 9/11. It's Cheney's staff who author the legal opinions that enhanced interrogation is not torture. In short, the movie gives Cheney credit for being the force behind the (sometimes controversial) decisions made to protect Americans after the 2001 attacks.

All of which makes "Vice" a very conflicted movie. Cheney is not portrayed as a cartoon villain. He's a man of conviction who goes to extraordinary lengths to champion his view of the world.

McKay makes sure to count up the casualties of our war in Iraq at the end of the movie but never really makes a firm statement about whether those casualties were worth it.

"Vice" is a satire that doesn't conform to anyone's political orthodoxy. Is Cheney a villain or a hero? Depends on your perspective, but it's safe to say that the folks behind this movie admire him more than they might want to admit.


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