MEMBERS ONLY: How Vice Rewrites The Rules of Biopics

(Photograph courtesy of CBS News)

Since its release last month, Vice, Adam McKay’s satirical biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has become an awards season juggernaut. Christian Bale won a Golden Globe for his performance (and in his acceptance speech, he thanked his inspiration for playing Cheney – Satan), and McKay has received both Directors and Writers Guild nominations. The film will likely receive several Oscar nominations next week, including one for Amy Adams’ excellent work as Cheney’s wife Lynne.

Simultaneously, Vice has become one of the most critically polarizing films of 2018. That itself isn’t surprising – most Oscar films, especially ones based on history, come under intense scrutiny. But the conversation over Vice is different: critics aren’t divided over the story it tells, but the way it tells it.

Objections to the Film

Vice combines direct narration, mixed media, and a wicked sense of humor to depict Dick Cheney’s rise to power. McKay used these narrative devices in his last film, The Big Short, to explain arcane financial concepts to viewers who wouldn’t understand them; here they lighten what would otherwise be a relentlessly grim story about a man often likened to Darth Vader (a comparison he’s fine with.) While critics praised these techniques in The Big Short, they have been mixed over their use in Vice. Says Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate:

“Preoccupied with how best to convey the heinousness of the Bush administration to us. Will an outlandish dirty joke get the point across? If not, what about a quick cutaway to a realistically re-created waterboarding incident?…The storytelling becomes even more disjunctive, more ‘multimedia,’ more bluntly polemical, and more playfully perverse.”

I disagree with her on this: I think Vice‘s comic setpieces are among the funniest of 2018. Dick and Lynne’s bedroom conversation in iambic pentameter is a hilarious re-imagining of what might have happened after George W. Bush first called him during the 2000 campaign. Equally ingenious is the film’s narrator, whose “relationship” to Cheney isn’t discovered until the climax, where it reminds us of how innocent people always pay for the actions of our leaders. But to some, the satire distracts us from the fact that Cheney himself may be too opaque and mysterious a character for a two-hour film. Says Bilge Ebiri:

“The movie posits that Dick Cheney didn’t believe anything…and while that’s an interesting notion, the near-Trotskyite zealotry of his time in office and his alliance with the neoconservative cause would suggest otherwise. A change clearly came over this man, but the film is so uninterested in exploring anything resembling an actual person that the transformation doesn’t register.”

I understand Ebiri’s point. The film often depicts Cheney as a passive observer, and those kinds of people don’t make great subjects for biopics, let alone films in general. But in ruminating on it, I realized that Vice is not meant to be taken only as a biopic of Dick Cheney, but as a biopic of American conservatism that uses Dick Cheney as its catalyst.

The Method to Vice’s Madness

When Vice begins, Cheney has no ideology. He only becomes a Republican when he learns that his soon-to-be-mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carell), is also one, and ingratiates himself into the then-congressman’s inner circle. As he follows Rumsfeld from Congress to the White House, learning more about the machinations of power, he meekly asks him, “What do we believe?” Rumsfeld laughs at this.

Throughout the film’s first hour, McKay plants the seeds for conservatism’s rise. Cheney meets Roger Ailes as a young congressional staffer; Antonin Scalia before he became a Supreme Court justice; and even a drunken George W. Bush (a hilarious Sam Rockwell) crashing a Christmas party. These men, including Cheney, are often degraded by other characters in the film, and not as highly regarded as any of the other Presidents who are depicted – but their withdrawn public personas allow them to accumulate power behind the scenes.

The film’s depiction of the Bush Administration, which takes up its second half, depicts the brazen manner in which Cheney and his fellow neocons executed their power grab by installing lackeys in every department to do their bidding. With the rise of Fox News, talk radio, and a conservative Supreme Court, they could sell the public on whatever they had in mind. Pollster Frank Luntz is shown testing names for conservative talking points, like renaming the “estate tax” as “death tax.” This creates an army of supporters who constantly need placating with more and more extreme policies.

The tragedy, however, is that once you’re in the conservative movement, you can’t get out. When Cheney’s daughter Liz runs for Congress from Wyoming on a pro-gay marriage platform and receives right-wing backlash. Although her sister Mary is an out lesbian, and Cheney has stood by her the whole time, he gives Liz permission to reverse her stance, driving a wedge between his children. The movement has turned on its own, splitting a family that seemed immune to the division.

It isn’t until the film’s end that we finally hear from the man himself, as Cheney turns to the camera and calmly tells us why he did what he did. “I will not apologize for keeping your families safe,” he says. “I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so your loved ones could sleep peacefully at night.” Rarely has the cynicism that drives Republican politics been explained in such a terrifyingly rational way.

Vice Foreshadows The Debate Over Vice

The great irony is that because the conservative movement polarized our politics and our culture, we now hold our opinions on everything as a reflection of who we are. That’s partly why every Oscar season, pundits hunt for films that don’t live up to their ideological demands (both rightly and wrongly), which has the effect of making people who like those films feel like victims, subsequently trapping both sides in an ongoing debate.

Vice’s brilliant post-credits scene is a microcosm of this debate, where two men who have just seen it fight over its perceived “liberal bias.” This brings the film full circle, and represents what its critics haven’t completely grappled with: Vice is not just a biopic of Dick Cheney and the conservative movement, it is also the story of how political polarization stifled our ability to analyze and appreciate art on its own terms – a message that would be unbearable if it weren’t for the satirical elements reminding us how ridiculous it all is.

As Mark Twain said, “If you want to tell the truth, you’d better make people laugh.” Vice does both.