Political Film Review #581


A choppy biopic of Dick Cheney (played by Christopher Bale), Vice begins chronologically in 1963, when Cheney is an alcoholic troublemaker. Soon his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) issues an ultimatum—make something of your life or divorce. Cheney begins his political career in 1969 by serving as a Congressional intern during the Nixon presidency. Impressed by the blunt sarcasm of Representative Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who was soon chosen to head Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity, Cheney serves under him and begins to network within the Beltway, serving in various deputy positions. When Ford replaces Nixon, Rumsfeld becomes White House Chief of Staff, bringing along Cheney as his deputy. When Ford elevates Rumsfeld to Defense Secretary, Cheney becomes White House Chief of Staff and later serves as Ford’s campaign manager in the 1976 election won by Jimmy Carter. Cheney wins the sole Congressional seat in Wyoming in 1978 and rises in House of Representative leadership until President George H.W. Bush appoints him as Defense Secretary. During the Clinton years, Cheney becomes CEO of Halliburton. Titles then indicate that he would never again play a role in politics, and credits run as if the film has ended. But in 2000, a seemingly naïve George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) summons him to serve as his vice-presidential running mate, which Cheney accepts on condition that he will have free rein in foreign policy and other matters. The film stops in 2004, when Bush puts Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and by inference Cheney’s influence within the Bush administration to pasture.

Vice begins with a disclaimer that true events are portrayed but much about Cheney (now 77) is fabricated because he is a secret persona. Documentary-type titles and voiceovers fill in gaps throughout his life, which director Adam McKay presents almost in the form of an indictment, with particular attention to his advocacy of the Iraq War of 2003, including the torture memo and his espousal of the theory of the unitary presidency, which assumes that chief executives are above the law. Filmviewers may seem encouraged to believe that Cheney set the stage for Trump. Throughout the film, a question emerges about Cheney’s fitness for office, since he dropped of Yale, had Halliburton ties, was attracted to megalomaniacs, and parroted the unitary theory. The answer appears to be that he knew how to flatter to rise in influence from the bottom and later appeared as almost a professorial sage in demeanor to move to the top. What is missing is the fact that he adopted a triumphalist view of foreign policy while at Yale, got an M.A. at the University of Wyoming, and was twice the director of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Nevertheless, the Political Film Society has nominated Vice as best film exposé of 2018. MH

ADDENDUM TO THE REVIEW OF AT ETERNITY’S GATE Although the film gives the impression that Van Gogh left Paris for Arles because he was uncomfortable with fellow painters, the recently published book Van Gogh and Japan provides a very different explanation: After viewing paintings of Hiroshige and other Japanese painters on display in Paris, which impressed the impressionists, Van Gogh realized that the best way to relieve his angst as an unsuccessful painter was to commune with nature. He in fact once said, “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.” He even tried to interpret Japanese paintings in his own genre. A Japanese company returned the compliment in 1987 by buying his Sunflowers, inspired by a Japanese painting, for just under $40 million, the highest price then paid for a work of art at an auction. MH