The opening scene in VICE—Adam McKay’s new movie in which Christian Bale becomes Dick Cheney—takes place on a country road in Wyoming after sundown. It’s the late 1960s. We’re following a car as it fishtails toward the blackened mountain skyline. Cheney, young, working as a utility pole repairman, is behind the wheel, piss-drunk.
The tone here is unnerving—the scene plays like a passage into Hades. It’s a note-perfect opener. Because contrary to what you may have heard, VICE is not just a Cheney biopic from the team that made The Big Short. VICE is a two hour evisceration of America’s political system—a system that allowed Cheney to metastasize from an observant power-hungry DC intern into a monstrous politician who destroyed Iraq so America could broker access to its oilfields.
It’s like Apocalypse Now, except we’re not in Cambodia (though we do see it get bombed at one point). This time, Cheney is our Willard, guiding us into the White House, the Pentagon, and the manicured estates where politicians sip Coors and go fly fishing. The film also takes us into fetid rooms where Iraqi and Afghan civilians are being tortured to fulfill the blood-soaked foreign policies that Cheney and his Ivy League-educated accomplices inflicted upon the world.
Let me be clear—American audiences are not ready for how devastating this movie is.
The early buzz on VICE was all about the 50 pounds that Christian Bale packed on to properly portray Cheney. (Bale told Variety that he “ate a lot of pies,” which is a funnier answer than most of what transpires in VICE.) Early reviews have ranged from acclaim to outright hatred. The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon declared that VICE “might be the worst movie of the year.” One of their beefs is the way that McKay’s script humanizes Cheney—a man who not only sanctioned the obliteration of a sovereign country, but also threw his lesbian daughter, Mary Cheney, under the bus to boost his other daughter, Liz Cheney’s, political career.
Tempting us to sympathize with someone like Cheney does sound dodgy on paper. But I walked out of VICE with more contempt for Cheney than I had when the lights went down. I suspect plenty of people will storm out of the theater equally enraged (and in need of whiskey). Because what VICE does exceptionally well is depict how America’s competitive, dick-swinging political culture brought out Cheney’s evil side.
Something that most folks don’t realize about Cheney is that early in life he was an underachieving Yale dropout, working dead-end jobs by day and drinking himself into trouble after work. This is Cheney in larval form, somewhere between regular guy and sociopath. Early in the film, one of Cheney’s fellow power line repairmen falls and shatters his leg. Cheney stares at him with indifference, before picking up his tools and resuming his work.
The next morning, sprung out of jail after his second DUI and back home with his high school sweetheart Lynne (played with steely determination by Amy Adams), Cheney reveals his sentimental side. He promises her that he’ll turn his life around and become someone, like a CEO, or better yet, a politician.
As VICE shows us, Washington, DC, proves the perfect venue for Cheney to begin this “quest” (which will not be victimless). Starting as an intern for a certain irreverent Congressman named Donald Rumsfeld (a frightening Steve Carell), Cheney proves himself a loyal and dutiful lackey to technocratic power, which he soon gets to see up close. It’s the middle of the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger is talking Nixon into setting Cambodia on fire. When Rumsfeld shows Cheney the door to the room where that life-or-death conversation is happening, the expression on Cheney’s face is orgasmic. This is power, he seems to think, and one day, I’ll be in the room.
Power lures many ambitious young people to Washington, DC, to this day. (It’s what allows them to put up with de facto indignities, like the unpaid internships that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently skewered.) Everyone on the Hill is waiting for their moment, and as McKay sees it, this was one of Cheney’s strengths—waiting in the wings.
“[Cheney] had this quiet eye for detail that a lot of ‘climbers’ don’t have,” McKay tells VICE, of VICE, over the phone. “He took lots of notes, knew what ideologies were valuable, as far as gaining power in Washington, DC, goes. There’s always a call for a guy who keeps his mouth shut and watches for details. We could talk about a puppeteer who climbed the ladder, because he had those skills.”
Cheney takes a wild and almost comically self-promotional journey from one illustrious post to another. He serves as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff and rakes in the big bucks as a political consultant. Then, as the Reaganomics craze takes off, Cheney returns to Wyoming with Lynne and runs for a US House seat. But right in the middle of his campaign, he suddenly collapses from a heart attack and barely makes it through. It’s the first of many cardiac episodes that Cheney will endure before the end of VICE.
“It’s known that Cheney was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and eating a dozen donuts,” McKay says. “That’s… gonna kill you. But there was this juice to that—this crush of power going on. I think [Cheney] loved that. I think Lynne loved it. There’s this sense of, ‘Hey man, 12 years ago I was getting DUIs and hanging power lines for the county. Now I’m in the White House.’”
Cheney’s heart attacks are an unlikely recurring comic device in the film. They hit Cheney at random, whether he’s at work or relaxing at home with family, and each time, he treats his heart attack like you might treat a shorted-out wifi router. (“Yup, gotta go to the hospital.”) But as Cheney’s rise continues and his power swells, the heart attacks become a nastier metaphor for what it truly costs a human being to commit their life to the pursuit of power. It’s not subtle, but it primes us for the jet-black latter half of VICE, where the Cheney many remember with disgust finally emerges from his seersucker cocoon as a fully-formed political sociopath.
The “reveal” happens when Cheney has lunch with George W. Bush (a very funny Sam Rockwell). Bush, the product of nepotism, is running for president and desperately seeking a VP who can teach him the ropes of the job. McKay depicts it in a way that almost manipulates you into laughing. But as I watched Cheney talk Bush into outsourcing things like “bureaucracy,” “foreign policy,” “energy,” and “military” to the Veep’s office, I felt nauseous. We know what Cheney was angling for during this conversation—the lingering conservative dream of imposing regime change on Iraq, and then brokering access to its oil. We know how Cheney’s plan played out. We’ve seen the bodies.
VICE doesn’t exactly shove our faces into the blood and guts of the Iraq invasion, but what it does show us is the steps that Cheney took to ensure the war would happen. Between setting up secretive lines of communication for the VP office, commissioning intel on Iraq’s rumored weapons of mass destruction, and then strong-arming Colin Powell into lying about the veracity of those reports to the United Nations, Cheney wields his political power like the rifle he’ll later use to shoot Harry Whittington in the face while quail hunting. (A rare moment of dark levity in VICE’s second half.)
What you start to sickeningly realize, as VICE surges toward its tragic conclusion, is that Cheney’s decades-long power trip through Washington foreshadowed something bigger. It marked the beginning of the Republican Party’s rightward slide from ideological conservatism toward a kind of proto-fascism, in which seizing and keeping political power is the be-all, end-all.
In other words, the Republican Party of the 1970s and 80s may have shaped Cheney, but he left his own self-aggrandizing stain on the party itself. “[Cheney] was a brilliant, brilliant bureaucratic operator,” McKay says. “He understood the way that government worked in a way that very few people did. And he was able to undo a lot of the structures of our democracy from inside to his advantage—to gain power. I look at Dick Cheney as the guy who loosened the shoelaces before they fully untangled.”
Watching VICE today, it’s hard not to think about Mitch McConnell stealing Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat, Georgia Republicans attempting to close polling places in majority black communities, or the Wisconsin GOP legislature hastily stripping the state’s newly-elected Democratic officials of their rightful powers. And then there’s Donald Trump, whom the Republican Party leadership got into bed with when they realized he might just take the presidency with his racist and misogynistic strongman campaign.
The best compliment that can be paid to VICE is that it’s the closest thing to justice that Cheney has faced yet. Just like The Big Short presented audiences with the cruelty of what the big banks did to the American people, VICE is a scathing memento of Cheney’s impact on American democracy, and how our political system, by design, rewards power-hungry men like him. Like The Big Short’s apocalyptic ending, the dark resolution of VICE will leave moviegoers not only angry and depressed, but asking each other, “What can we do about this?”
VICE is too respectful of its audience to dole out easy answers, but my ears perked up during one particular scene in the White House, where Rumsfeld—not exactly beloved by the Nixon administration, which wants to send him to Belgium—is explaining to young Cheney how being pushed around is part of the long game that one plays to acquire influence in American politics.
“I’m like bed bugs!” Rumsfeld declares. “You’ve gotta burn the mattress to get rid of me.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.