Vice is a missed opportunity. A more coherent, subtle, and ironical effort could have presented Dick Cheney as a key actor in ushering in the descent into the current paranoia, conspiracy theories, and anti-establishment populism. Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense to George Bush and Vice President to George W. Bush. He played a key role in the ‘radicalization’ of the Republican Party and in taking advantage of the 9/11 attacks to invade Iraq. Iraq broke new ground in the amount and quality of lies governments are prepared to tell their citizens. Reality didn’t matter anymore. The emotions aroused through a bogeyman (Saddam Hussein) and terror were all that was needed to justify callous action at home (Patriot Act) and abroad.
In the clumsy hands of Adam McKay, the film Vice becomes an example of our loss of a moral and political compass. The film is Trumpesque in its portrayal of Dick Cheney as the puppet-master holding the strings of President George W Bush. Thanks to Christian Bale’s interpretation, Cheney is not cartoonish, but an evil shadowy figure that controls everything and everybody. At times it feels like it’s evil for evil’s sake, which might explain why Christian Bale stated that he found the inspiration for his interpretation of Cheney in the devil. The problem is that Cheney is a real human being not the incarnation of the devil. It has been noted that Cheney shares very much the conservative ideology of the Republican Party. He’s not a cynical operator, but deeply ideological. The film does nothing to help us understand who Cheney really is.
There is no sense of history in the film Vice, no sense that the ideas and beliefs that have shaped decades have anything to do with Dick Cheney and the brutalization of the American democracy during the Presidency of George W. Bush. In Vice, beliefs are laughed out of the picture in an exchange between Donald Rumsfeld and a young Cheney. This suggests that Cheney & co. had no beliefs only naked self-interest, except the two are not mutually exclusive. McKay doesn’t get belief (see my analysis of The Big Short); he thus fails to understand its legitimizing power. Beliefs play an important role in legitimizing how people understand reality and consequently what is justified. That includes politicians of all stripes, whose beliefs about reality and what is right and wrong legitimize the actions they take.
Some might come to question their beliefs, as Alan Greenspan did, to some extent, following the 2008 economic crisis, while others cling to them to preserve how they understand themselves and the world around them. If you start questioning what you think you know, you lose your (epistemological) compass, you don’t know what you know about reality and how to understand it. To cite none other than Donald Rumsfeld, one’s ‘known knows’ risk becoming ‘unknown unknowns’. Once the certainties have gone, on what do you base yourself to judge a situation?
We’ve become suspicious of authority because our governments have lied to us, egregiously so about the Vietnam War (do watch Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War). The 1960s were a turning point for the re-making of Western society (and beyond). The sixties brought about the overdue critique of cultural, economic, and social hegemonies. Society in the image of white middle class Christian men became fractured. Identity politics emerged to rectify a too often monolithic view that excluded the perspective and experience of the Other (women, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT, disabled people etc.). Identity politics began to question Western society’s self-image and self-understanding and try to expand it to include the Other (see Roman J. Israel, esq.). Identity politics has often become too wedded to the critique of society, given too readily epistemological privilege to the Other, and sometimes denied any universality. In the face of continuous injustice, there is no common ground, only oppression to be denounced. The frustrating tardiness of progress makes difficult to hope for effective change. Today’s assaults on hard-won freedoms and rights are enough to make anyone a nihilist.
That’s the problem. On one hand, the social upheaval of the sixties, with its ‘liberation’ for women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT, and working class claims, has been felt (wrongly) like a threat by the white middle class male hegemony. This has made some feel under siege, which is reflected in current populism. On the other hand, the relentless critique of society, especially in the 1970s, has also engendered cynicism (see my analysis of The Post). The brief hope of the sixties was killed by the bullets who killed John and Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. As the economic boom gave way to recession, the white male rich became priority in the name of individual freedom and while paying lip service to the middle classes, who got shafted with everybody else.
Vice falls flat on its pretensions to be a critique of a corrupt system. This is primarily because it does not shine a light on the murky side of business and politics as the current deluge of investigative documentaries do, from a moral standpoint. McKay’s crass humour (albeit toned down from what it was in The Big Short) winks at Cheney. Vice does not uphold any morality or truth on which basis to denounce Cheney. It embraces contemporary disenchantment and nihilism turning everything, including torture and war, into entertainment. It doesn’t even leave a bad taste in your mouth; it leaves no taste.
Vice is Trumpesque. It’s an instance of postmodern hyperreality. As Baudrillard argued, in a world dominated by media, people prefer the hyperreal, the fake reality of Disney theme-parks, reality TV, and celebrities. It’s all a game. It’s entertainment. The boundaries between entertainment and the paranoia of conspiracy theorists become blurred, as in the case of Pizzagate and Alex Jones‘ infowars. The fragmentation and diversification of media has created a vacuum of authoritativeness and trustworthiness leading to a deep mistrust for the establishment. Reality fades away. There’s nothing in which we can believe. In embracing such disenchantment and nihilism, Vice is an expression of the current paranoia that authorities lie to us, use us, and poison us.
The film’s bad humour prevents any sense of horror for the torture and killing, wanted by the second Bush administration. The film does not punch, it bores. It’s a bad TV show. Everything melts into meaningless entertainment. In the final scene, Cheney speaks to camera saying that he did ‘what you asked.’ He doesn’t sound like the devil, but a TV celebrity blaming the excesses of his show on the tastes of the audience. Time to switch off the TV.