Inside Dick's head: Why Cheney was a cold warrior of the US far right
'Vice' is tipped for Oscars but it's a shallow portrait of an all-American villain
A recurring image in Vice is fishing: Dick Cheney stands in a river, waiting for his quarry to come to him. That, suggests the film, is how you acquire power, not by ranting and raving or even winning elections, but by silently putting yourself in the right place at the right time and standing very still.
It’s a great metaphor but a boring one. Imagine watching a man fish for two-and-a-half hours. That’s what watching Vice is like. The latest movie from left-wing director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short) is being hailed as a long-awaited take-down of one of the most sinister figures in 21st-century politics; a biopic that lays out the former vice-president’s crimes – from masterminding the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to his support for waterboarding – and explains what drove him down such an execrable path.
The British actor Christian Bale (who put on 20kg to play Cheney) has already won a Golden Globe for his performance and is being tipped for an Oscar. But, while the film does a good job of documenting the decisions of a politician who said he was “honoured” to be compared with Darth Vader, it fails to explain the malign ideology that directed his actions and how passionately Cheney believed in it.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1941, Cheney was a lot of “fun” in his youth, as Vice documents: he was arrested twice for driving while intoxicated, dropped out of Yale and deferred his way out of the military five times. But he married the ambitious Lynne Vincent (Amy Adams), cleaned himself up and joined the congressional intern programme. There he fell under the spell of DC insider Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who took him all the way to the White House – to become Gerald Ford’s deputy chief of staff, an important congressman under Ronald Reagan, secretary of defence under George Bush, and head of energy company Halliburton in the 1990s.
When Halliburton later won a $7bn contract during the Iraq War – without competitive bidding – Senator Patrick Leahy tried to talk to Cheney on the floor of the Senate. The vice-president said: “Go fuck yourself.” He was indispensable; he was the master of the dark arts.
In 2000, according to Vice, he even orchestrated his own nomination for vice-president. George W Bush, desperate to put some experience on the ticket, asked Cheney to run with him. Cheney refused: accepting and being vetted in the traditional manner, speculates the movie, would have exposed his tax affairs and heart problems. Instead, he offered to find an alternative on Bush’s behalf. Bush agreed. Cheney vetted his own opposition and discovered – surprise, surprise – that none of them were as good as him. So, Bush begged Cheney to join the ticket and Cheney – who must have felt like the prettiest girl at the ball – finally said yes, with one caveat: he wanted control of economics, appointments and foreign affairs.
And that’s how he ended up being the most powerful “vice” in American history. For a sense of the scope of his power, I highly recommend Barton Gellman’s biography. The title is Angler. But what motivated the man? It’s on this issue that the movie takes a wrong turn.
When Cheney first arrives in the Nixon White House, he innocently asks Rumsfeld: “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld cackles like a demon and walks off, still laughing (Carell’s turn is the best thing about this movie). The answer is power, for its own sake. This is unconvincing. Cheney would never have had to ask what to believe because he’s a true believer in a brand of conservatism shaped by the 1960s and 70s. Cheney’s right-wingers want a smaller state, yes, but also a stronger one, capable of doing what’s necessary to defend liberty – and they see the presidency as the best weapon in their arsenal.
From 1948-1994, the Democrats enjoyed an almost unbroken hold on Congress, which they used to expand the federal government, while the courts and the culture moved sharply to the left. Republicans identified the White House as the point of maximum resistance against the new liberal establishment. They wanted to win it, hold on to it and expand its authority, particularly in foreign affairs, because they were convinced that whenever the US retreated from global leadership, the gap was filled by communism. After the Berlin Wall fell, Marxism was replaced by Islamist terrorism as the proximate threat, and the Bush administration’s dream of rebuilding the Middle East as a giant democracy was at least as ideological as it was mercenary.
Cheney did what he did because he honestly thought it was necessary for the survival of America, and George W Bush concurred. The film repeats the old canard that Bush was a dumb frat-boy out of his depth, but that’s one profound reason that the Democrats lost two elections to him. They “misunderestimated” George W and his ability to communicate complex conservative ideas as simple matters of character and honour. The Cheney of Vice has none of those qualities. Bale plays him as a softly spoken éminence grise, pulling invisible strings. The impersonation is so physically accurate that, unfortunately, it ends up being as dull as dishwater.
The film slams home its critique. After his umpteenth heart attack, Cheney is given a transplant and his fat, black heart is taken out of his body and dumped on the table. Yes, he literally has no heart. His only redeeming feature is his love for his two daughters, but when one of them comes out as a lesbian, we see Cheney run away from the chance to promote gay rights. On this the movie is also incorrect. Cheney publicly endorsed gay equality as early as 2000, when he irritated conservatives by opposing a gay marriage ban.
None of this is to suggest Cheney is anything other than a corrosive influence in the history of the republic; it’s just that this movie – by refusing to take neoconservatism seriously – misses its target.
Cheney never looked more heartless and wrong than when interviewed in 2018 by Sacha Baron Cohen disguised as an Israeli soldier, and Cheney looked back with nostalgia on his various wars and “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Cohen even persuaded Cheney to sign a “waterboarding kit”. A purely technocratic functionary wouldn’t have agreed to do that. You have to take pleasure from what you think is a “just cause” well fought to hand out autographs.
Not that Cheney was such an outlier. In foreign policy, America has fished with dynamite for decades. Nixon bombed Cambodia. The Reagan administration traded arms for hostages in Iran and wanted to give the cash from the sale to the Contras in Nicaragua. Bill Clinton ordered a missile attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant. Barack Obama intervened militarily in Libya and, contrary to a campaign promise, failed to shut down the Guantánamo prison completely.
As villains go, Cheney was all-American.
– © The Daily Telegraph