Film Review: Vice


21st June, 2021

Written by Rubin Mathias

Former US Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney aka Dick Cheney is one of the most detested American leaders in modern times. With Christian Bale as the titular character, Adam McKay of The Big Short fame’s Vice, is a biopic of Cheney detailing why that is the case. Cheney is known to have held immense political influence in George W. Bush’s cabinet and is considered to be the most powerful vice president in American history. He was a primary engineer of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. He gave no-bid contracts to his former oil company and pioneered waterboarding and other forms of torture. The film is a biopic of Cheney in McKay’s signature humour-laden scorching style. Amy Adams plays Lynne Cheney who is shown to be a charismatic conservative and anti-feminist campaigner for her husband while Steve Carrell plays the unscrupulous Donald Rumsfeld.  

Vice starts with Cheney being a Yale dropout and working as a lineman. Driven by his wife Lynne to make something of himself, he gains an internship in the US Congress and makes his way into Richard Nixon’s administration. He works under Donald Rumsfeld which lays the groundwork for their Machiavellian rise in the annals of the US government. He eventually works under Gerald Ford after Nixon's resignation due to the Watergate scandal. After being elected to the House of Representatives, Cheney pushed massive removal of regulations for mega-corporations and cutting taxes for them. All this while, it was okay to run deficits for wars but not for domestic investment and social spending. 

Cheney eventually became US Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush and established his credentials with the invasion of Panama and the Kuwait - Iraq War, which is not really addressed in the film. With respect to Saddam Hussein, the CIA had supported him for torturing and murdering democrats, progressives, socialists, reformers, and even the left-wing of his own Baathist party in Iraq. Rumsfeld was an envoy to Saddam Hussein under Ronald Reagan during the Iraq - Iran War. US hostility to Hussein began with his oil nationalization and opposition to US corporate interests. His attack on Kuwait pushed their conflict to the fore. In an interview in 1994, former US Defense Secretary Cheney explained that overthrowing Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War between Kuwait and Iraq could have destabilized the region, essentially predicting the consequences of his own future course of actions. After Bush Sr. is defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton, Cheney moves to work in the private sector, where Washington people get easy access to top corporate positions due to their government networks.

George W. Bush calls him to be his vice president, with the agreement that Cheney would hold substantial power. He fills most slots in the administration with his people. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Cheney had a meeting with energy executives with maps of Iraqi oilfields in case they became available. Halliburton, an oil services corporation, with a slew of charges, the prime one being the given a no-bid contract for services in the Iraq War. There were also improprieties with their billing practices which the Pentagon had raised and were pushed aside. 

Cheney pushed for extended powers for the executive branch using legal loopholes to allow for enhanced interrogation techniques which is a euphemism for torture most famously including waterboarding but also putting prisoners in confined spaces and in stressful positions, using aggressive dogs to intimidate them, etc.

The mass media machinery and state intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Friedman legitimized the invasion by creating consent via mass media and planted hysteria which was against mainstream intelligence reports. The satirical news organization The Onion did a better job of predicting the consequences than either of these. Another agency that would create these false leads linking Al-Qaeda to Iraq since even the CIA wasn’t willing to corroborate the theory linking the historically secular Arab nationalist Baathist establishment with the Islamists. The wafer-thin link they found was a minor Al-Qaeda operative named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was at odds with Bin Laden and would eventually push an anti-Shia civil war. His name being repeated by Colin Powell several times at the UN Security Council is supposed to have increased his standing substantially more than what it was. He would go on to be the founder of the group that would morph into ISIS. 

The film has strong comic elements characteristic of McKay’s filmmaking while shifting to a more dramatic and tragic tone as the film progresses. Cheney’s failing cardiac health is used as a metaphor. At various important plot points in the film, he gets cardiac arrests. He transitions from a father who accepted his daughter’s homosexuality and possibly discarding his presidential bid, to eventually throwing her under the bus for his other daughter’s political ambitions. An interesting scene is when George Bush is giving his televised speech on the eve of the invasion, his shaking foot switches to another shaking foot but this time in Iraq of a family being bombed in Iraq. The film ends with a focus group getting into a physical fight over the apparent bias of the film. 

The contrast between the beginning where it is shown that Rumsfeld and Cheney have no fundamental beliefs doesn’t align to the ending monologue addressing the audience and breaking the fourth wall, that the ideology behind Cheney’s actions is to safeguard the nation. Cheney being portrayed as the Darth Vader of the US empire is as flawed as viewing history through the lens of presidential eras. There is a fundamental continuity in US foreign policy irrespective of the party in power. The film itself shows Hillary Clinton supporting the invasion. Cheney, like Trump, is a manifestation of the reactionary powers that maintain the global militant capitalist hegemony forming the worst end of the American system. 

In the animated series, Avatar The Last Airbender, the Fire Nation unleashes a global imperialist war around the world. While the movie as a biopic shows glimpses of reality and pushes into prominence the despicable nature of one individual, Cheney is but a symptom of the fact that America is our world’s Fire Nation.