It is now widely accepted that the American government was not justified in sending troops to Iraq, and that the US intervention led to the creation of the ISIS jihadist outfit. In following the political career of George W. Bush’ s Vice President, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), Adam McKay’s Vice exposes the political decisions that led to disastrous events in the Middle East. After his didactical and enlightening film The Big Short (2015) – the story behind the 2008 economic crisis – McKay’s Vice retraces the life of the power-obsessed Cheney, from his failure at Yale as a drunkard, to the acme of his career as a vicious VP.
According to Vice, Cheney did not need a strong knowledge of law or government policy to succeed in American politics, merely unwavering ambition and a frustrated wife were sufficient. Cheney’s wife, Lynne Vincent (Amy Adams), is portrayed as the more ambitious of the two, hoping to succeed through Cheney. She appears to be the true bearer of political convictions in the family, as she successfully demonstrates during a speech she delivers on behalf of her bedridden husband following a heart attack.
And yet it is the man who gets the pride of place in the world of politics. From being an assistant to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), Cheney joins the Republican Party because it seems the most direct route to unlimited power. Political convictions and principles are not part of the deal (when he once asks Rumsfeld, ‘What do we believe in?’, the latter responds with laughter). Power is the only objective for these men whose sole belief is placed upon the unitary executive theory, which gives the President overarching power over the executive branch.
Without any moral or social hurdles to stop him, Cheney takes the reins of the country under the nose of the gullible and inexperienced Bush (Sam Rockwell). He is the one to choose the President’s cabinet and he devises ways to find loopholes to bypass the law. One surreal scene in particular cynically reveals the decision-making over how prisoners of war should be treated during the Iraq war. The scene shows Cheney and three of his confidantes in a fancy restaurant. Cheney is brought the menu on which the following ‘meals’ are written: ‘extraordinary rendition’, ‘new torture methods’ and ‘non-respect of prisoners’ rights whatsoever’. After some deliberation, the four men decide to order the whole menu. The scene is punctuated by graphic sequences of actual torture that consequently happens. Juxtaposing the flippant manner in which those decisions were made with horrific images enhances Vice’s emotional intensity. But what is most frightening is its demonstration of how four men in expensive suits can make decisions that will affect hundreds of lives on the other side of the planet.
Through Vice, we come to understand that Cheney was behind most of Bush Jr’s decisions. And yet he was a man in the shadows. In that sense, Bale’s performance deserves its Oscar-nomination: he portrays Cheney as a man of few words yet always to the point, discreet and unflinching. Despite depicting Cheney as the devil incarnate, Vice does not explicitly take a political stance. Its main aim is to inform the public, to tell us what we might have been ignorant of, in a pedagogical way. Cheney’s hushed success killed thousands of soldiers, civilians and prisoners, leading to the creation of ISIS. But Vice also shows a short clip of Hillary Clinton upholding the war in Iraq, and not all members of the Republican party are shown as being blood-thirsty or corrupt.
The very last scene throws the viewer off-balance. Cheney faces the camera and explains that he regrets nothing. All his decisions were made out of conviction in the President’s power and in the need for a public enemy after 9/11. This makes Vice all the more powerful. It puts us in a position of doubt, stuck in-between straddling hatred for Cheney, and the desire to understand but not excuse him and unearth how he could make such devastating decisions. Vice highlights our current situation as citizens and points us in the direction of the truth.