In a series of comedies that started with 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and culminated in its 2013 sequel, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, director Adam McKay has established himself as America’s high poet of white guy imbecility. Those two films, plus three feature-length comedies in between, all starred Will Ferrell as some sort of insufferable idiot whose obliviousness to his own destructive tendencies bordered on magical. McKay could have extended the series indefinitely, replacing one cinematic dumbass with the next, but in 2015 he opted to direct The Big Short, a complex and didactic drama starring Ryan Gosling about the 2008 financial crisis. McKay may have switched genres, but he didn’t change his true subject matter: the film is as much about clueless white men and their destructive mistakes as were any of Ron Burgundy’s adventures. If a philosophical question emerged from The Big Short, it was whether it is possible – or worthwhile – to distinguish between stupidity and criminality. As Gosling’s character challenges a room of hedge funders: ‘Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.’ Gosling’s finance dude settles the matter himself: ‘There’s some shady shit going down [in the housing market], but it’s fuelled by stupidity.’
In Vice (2018), McKay’s new biopic about the rise of Vice President Dick Cheney, there’s plenty of shady shit going down, most of it run out of a succession of Cheney-led governmental offices. But, unlike The Big Short, little of the chaos is fuelled by stupidity. Cheney, as written by McKay and ultra-method acted by Christian Bale – who won the Best Actor Award in a Comedy or a Musical at the 74th Golden Globes for the role – is instead portrayed a Satanic genius, responsible for just about every Bad Thing that’s happened in America during our young millennium. Opening only weeks after the burial and rehabilitation of Cheney’s former boss, George H.W. Bush, Vice is also a rehabilitation of sorts, one which could have just as easily been titled, Vice: The Legend of Dick Cheney. And that legend, as anyone who’s followed American politics knows, involves Cheney secretly running the US government during the eight years he was the vice president. It’s debatable how exactly this was done and to what degree, but Cheney was, without a doubt, the most powerful vice president in history. McKay seems to buy the extreme version of the Cheney-as-Svengali hypothesis, reducing the Bush Doctrine to the Cheney Doctrine, and casting the 43rd president as a literal supporting actor in an administration that stars the VP.
Not unlike George W. Bush, Cheney started out adult life as a drunken screw-up and, after one too many DUIs, was whipped into shape by his straight-shooting conservative wife, Lynne. (Played by Amy Adams as the ne plus ultra of conservative bitchdom.) Ashamed that he flunked out of Yale and let his wife down, Cheney goes into civic climber overdrive, his wife operating his career not unlike Cheney puppeteered the Oval Office. Much of the private drama that follows is heavily fictionalized, since, as the opening titles plead, there’s not much to go on, biography-wise. Cheney’s profile is Republican nondescript, beige on beige, a man of monosyllables and smug grins. Why he does what he does and what brought about his monstrous conservatism is anyone’s guess. As if to illustrate the futility of the project, McKay includes a hammy scene where a young Cheney naively queries Donald Rumsfeld: ‘What do we believe in?’ In response, Carrell’s Rumsfeld cackles maniacally, continuing to howl after he’s shut the door in Cheney’s 20-something face.
The problem with Rummy’s nihilistic laugh is that the neocons did believe in things – many things, in fact. They believed that America could remake the world in its own image. They believed that the Iraqi people would welcome coalition forces as their ‘liberators’. It was Cheney’s office that believed that Henry Kissinger Associates flunky, Paul Bremer, was the best person to lead the occupation – a man who spoke no Arabic and knew nothing about the country he was to run. Cheney and his allies also believed it was a good idea to immediately disband the Iraqi military and the police and, while Baghdad burned after the invasion, they thought it would be an even better idea to open fire on the looters. As everyone now knows, the situation, to quote Ron Burgundy, escalated quickly.
Not a lot of this ineptitude makes it into the film. Cheney is on view as a master planner, though one who cares more about enriching his former company, Halliburton, than helping the Middle East. While it’s true there was a certain perverse genius to Cheney’s greed and destructiveness, the war also eventually threatened to engulf his party whole, including his former mentor, Rumsfeld. When Rumsfeld finally gets canned, the film doesn’t show why, other than implying that Cheney was probably behind the firing. Even when everything is coming undone, Cheney is shown as coming out on top.
The problem is this sort of theorizing does more for the man’s legend than it realizes. In McKay’s eyes, Cheney conquered the planet one focus group at a time. The reality is that he and the neocons were operating in a fantasy world, one grounded in monomaniacal orientalist myths. The neoconservatives were a danger even to themselves – to paraphrase Rumsfeld, they didn’t know what they didn’t know – even as they projected an image of Deep State Mastery. Considering McKay’s comic métier, it’s a shame this existence-threatening incompetence isn’t dramatized, not even slightly. (The project might be redundant, though: in 2009, McKay directed a Ferrell-as-Bush Broadway play, You’re Welcome America, which did exactly that.)
Cheney is more symptom than disease, more surface effect than cause. One brief scene shows his willingness to do the work of shadowy oil interests, but the scene is too isolated to alter the film’s overall thesis. If Cheney were seen purely as an oil-industry functionary, albeit one with neocon delusions, his gloss would be dulled, and his reign would become more intelligible for what it was: just another milestone on the Republican-led marathon to the bottom.
Main image: Adam McKay, Vice, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Annapurna Pictures