A Vice President With Few Virtues
No matter what your politics, Christian Bale is easily one of our greatest living actors, along with Daniel Day-Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Robert De Niro. And while his stunning performance as Dick Cheney in Vice isn’t his best performance, it’s certainly his greatest impersonation since his Sissy-Spacek-as-Carrie/Anthony-Perkins-as-Norman-Bates-level defining of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. (Like Meryl Streep playing The Iron Lady, Bale will be the mainstream star to watch in this year’s Best Actor race. Vice is already running away with Golden Globe nominations.)
On that note, I had planned to write a straightforward film review, maybe making a crack that it would be up to you to decide whether a film about Dick Cheney qualified as a sort of sequel to American Psycho, and leave it at that. And I would have been happy to have stayed in my lane, except for all the Beltway political pundits who, in Vice’s wake, have taken up the art of film criticism. (Full disclosure: I interviewed Ben Shapiro years ago for a book review, and though our outlooks differed, I respected him and liked him personally. That said, I’m afraid I disagree with him in the extreme here, although Kyle Smith in National Review makes a far more worthwhile case against the movie on its own merits, or lack thereof.)
So instead, I am summoned to a more urgent, if distasteful, task: to try and explain why anyone in the conservative movement (or anywhere else) would want to normalize Dick Cheney—let alone flat-out cheer for him. After all, this was a man who left office with an approval rating as low as 13 percent.
That’s lower than Richard Nixon when he resigned, lower than Jimmy Carter when he was replaced by Ronald Reagan. It’s as low as Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression and as low as Barack Obama among Republicans and conservatives.
Even today, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have triple the approval ratings that Cheney left office with.
To plagiarize what Andrew Sullivan famously said about Hillary, anyone with Cheney’s destructive track record towards his own movement should have been drummed out “under a welter of derision.”
We don’t have to be “ordered” to remember and revere historical figures like Reagan, MLK, and JFK, or be shamed into doing so. But who the heck did Dick Cheney ever benefit outside of the corporate-crony one percent? What small, non-monopoly business did he ever give a chance to grow? What did he do to improve our schools and police? What did he do for balanced-budget conservatism, as he overruled Alan Greenspan and his own treasury secretary, gloating that “deficits don’t matter”?
How did Cheney make us more secure, with Iraq and Afghanistan all but ruined, Iran and Syria feeling stronger every day, and ISIS having wrought its destruction—and with Osama bin Laden still livin’ large for two-and-a-half years after Cheney retired? How do you defend someone who literally went to the Supreme Court to keep the minutes of his infamous 2001 energy task force meetings secret (they were co-chaired by Kenny-Boy Lay during the height of Enron’s rape of California’s power grid), while at the same time suggesting the outing of a truly top secret CIA agent (Valerie Plame) just to get revenge on her journalist husband? How did Cheney uphold Ronald Reagan’s mantra of curbing big government excesses when he justified warrantless surveillance and straight-up torture?
And what lasting benefit did Dick Cheney bestow on the conservative or Republican brand, with Barack Obama winning the biggest landslides since Reagan and Bush Senior?
It was my respected colleague Kelley Vlahos who solved the mystery of why some members of the Beltway press just can’t quit Cheney: “because they still won’t admit that the war was wrong.” Bingo. Expecting the U.S. to export insta-democracy to decidedly non-Western cultures? Putting overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish “viceroys” in charge of historically Muslim nations? Gee, what could possibly go wrong…
As chilling and thrilling as Christian Bale is as Dick Cheney, perhaps no scene in Vice is as squirmy as Richard Dreyfus’s impersonation of Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W., when he stands in front of a CGI map in the War Room and smirkingly announces, “There is no exit strategy. We STAY!” (If that scene didn’t actually take place, it might just as well have.)
Still, there are scenes in Vice that come close. For a biopic about a man who defined the adage “personnel is policy,” it’s fitting that director Adam McKay, who has a strong comedy background, chose actors who are known for being funny just as much as for their work in dramas. Those include Sam Rockwell as George W., Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. (Reuniting Bale and Carell also indicates that McKay rightly sees Vice as an unofficial prequel to his financial meltdown dark farce The Big Short.) Like the aforementioned W., McKay’s Vice is a sometimes frenetic, sometimes eerily calm black comedy satire. And like Josh Brolin in W., Sam Rockwell plays George Jr. as an easily played and comical doofus. There’s no doubt in this film as to who the real president was from December 2000 to the end of 2008.
Watching Bale as a terse, leering, manipulative young reactionary as he grindstones and plays people against each other from the late ‘60s to his Bush-Cheney heyday, one is struck by his shameless entitlement. Cheney uses movement conservatism and old boy connections as his own Uber. If Christian Bale is a slim and athletic man trapped in a fat and ugly body, Cheney sees himself as the Richelieu or Machiavelli of his own real-life movie, trapped just one step behind the real decision-makers—until he finally gets that chance to ride his horse from Aqueduct to Santa Anita.
The other key role among these garbage men is Amy Adams’ take-no-prisoners performance as Lynne Cheney. Mrs. Cheney had the straight-A brains and Ph.D.-level drive to be a powerful judge or executive in her own right, and was, according to Adams, a better “natural politician” than her husband. But as a card-carrying member of the Phyllis Schlafly/Anita Bryant/Beverly LaHaye-era Right from rural Wyoming, Lynne had less than zero plans to transform herself into another bra-burning icon. Instead, “she lived her [considerable] ambitions through her husband,” as Adams said. Adams even added that compared to the iron-fisted Lynne, her husband Dick might have been the “velvet glove”!
And as these Cheney-rehabilitating articles prove, Lynne wasn’t the only one who got off on Dick’s raw exercise of power and privilege. Watching Dick Cheney at work must have been intoxicating for a Dwight Schrute or Montgomery Burns in his small pond, for someone who coveted the kind of vulgar bullying power that Cheney wielded. It was no accident that Stephen Bannon famously and semi-humorously put Dick Cheney in his own hall of heroes, behind only Darth Vader and Satan, citing Cheney’s peerless talent at “disrupting” established orders.
As we contemplate the dumpster fire that is today’s politics, Vice is a useful reminder that the arrogant and destructive reign of Dick “Full Speed Ahead” Cheney was so awful for American society in general and American conservatism in particular that it helped provoke the biggest counter-reaction on the Left since Watergate. And if you’re a Never Trumper, just recall that a key reason Trump and Ted Cruz were the last Republicans standing in 2016 was because Cheneyism had so discredited the old “conservative” establishment.
Sorry, I’m just not there for conservative writers infantilizing Cheney and going all triggered snowflake at what big meanies the Hollywood libr’als are being to him. Christian Bale said it himself: “[Cheney’s] a big boy…he says himself he has no remorse, no regrets, he’d do everything again in a minute.” Exactly.
So if you like where society has gone over the last 10 years—the pink pussy hats and trans bathrooms, the social justice warriors questioning the value of free speech, watching your impressionable high school and college kids devouring Samantha Bee, The Young Turks, and Mr. Robot while flirting with joining the DSA—then you really ought to thank Dick Cheney. And if you don’t like it, then why not finally give him the blame he so richly deserves?
Because he built that.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”