'Brexit: The Uncivil War' and 'Vice' Give Too Much Credit to Individuals
Both films deal in the making of political ploys, but fail to highlight how it takes more than one charismatic man to enforce an ideology.
Christian Bale, (L) in Vice (Photograph via PR). Richard Goulding, Benedict Cumberbatch and Oliver Maltman in Brexit: The Uncivil War' (Photograph: Nick Wall via Channel 4)
The world is confusing and chaotic and quite often terrible. The forces that shape it can seem unknowable. The contradictory feelings those forces create inside us – the borders and conflicts that can exist inside a single being – are overwhelming. The drive for profit, power and control propels the masters of our universe in a direction both monstrous and all-consuming.
Today, Adam McKay’s Vice – a film about the former US Vice President, oil company CEO, secretary of defence and arch neo-conservative Dick Cheney, played by Christian Bale – comes out in British cinemas. Like Channel 4's recent Brexit: The Uncivil War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings, Vice takes an individual puppeteer operating in the shadows and places him centre stage. It shows the world we are living in as shaped by the men who operate in the shadows.
Men who don’t share the aims and views of their protagonists made both films. And both films – particularly Vice – find frequent comedy in the various horrors unleashed by those protagonists. But film is a medium taken in by the stories of individuals, and both Vice and Brexit buy into the myths their subjects created around them, to the point where it sometimes seems as though they are suggesting, respectively, that American neoconservative imperialism and British opportunistic anti-Europeanism were two particularly successful ruses cooked up by two particularly ruthless guys.
Cumberbatch’s Cummings is a self-proclaimed outsider who talks about reading Thucydides and studying Sun Tzu. He wants to "hack the system" and, as far as the film shows us, he does, winning the day for Brexit by employing a data mining firm to locate "hidden" voters and crafting the simple but effective "Take Back Control" slogan, among other things. Cummings – who in real life is married to an aristocrat and was a special advisor to Michael Gove during the coalition government – seems in Brexit to be driven mainly by an often justified disdain for the British political establishment. Similarly, Vice seems to suggest that Dick Cheney was not really guided by any particularly striking ideology.
There’s a moment early on in the film in which Bale – who, as Cheney, often looks like a toad squatting over a particularly wide toilet – furrows his brow and ask his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell): "What do we believe in?" Rumsfeld cracks up and closes the door on his junior, still laughing away. Cheney would go on to be one of the most powerful men in the world, an architect of the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, a political operator responsible for untold misery and devastation in the name of American capitalism and imperialism.
In Vice, though, Cheney’s political allegiances are presented almost as a matter of accident: he doesn’t know if he’s a Democrat or a Republican when he arrives in Washington, and he plumps for Republican because the blustering, cursing Rumsfeld has given an entertaining speech to the incoming class of interns of which Cheney is a part.
Cheney was – and still is, despite the many heart attacks he’s had (a recurring, sometimes comic feature of the film) – a hardline, hawkish neo-conservative, a man who wanted the United States to take apart the Middle East and put it back together in a way that pleased the voracious appetites of American power. He was a man who believed in something. He was a man of the system and the system rewarded him, just as you could say that Cummings has played the role of strategist for the vulture capitalist interests of the Conservative party’s right wing.
Vice is more interested in the exercise of power for its own sake; in power as a vice, like lust or gluttony. Bale’s Cheney says goodbye to the brawling and boozing of his Wyoming youth and embraces the quest for power. He reaches out for it and consumes it as if it was one of the many Danish pastries he bites into throughout the film. His appetite for power is vast, but it is justified, filled out and solidified by his family, who give him – consciously, at least – a reason to become the man he becomes. He is proud, in the way a little boy is proud, of the progress he makes.
There is a darkly American wholesomeness to his devotion to family: here is a man who can get up, kiss his wife goodbye, go to the office, sanction the killing of thousands of innocent civilians and then get home for a dinner of mac and cheese. In Brexit, Cummings’s wife is seen as a refuge and escape, a thought to calm him down when some idiot MP is infuriating him. Some of the most effective and affecting scenes in Vice come when McKay cuts from the corpulent Vice President enjoying a meal with his family or giving an order in an underground meeting room, to a terrified Iraqi family sheltering from American air strikes or an Afghan villager being tortured at a CIA black site, the secret interrogation locations that sprang up from Thailand to Poland in order to serve Cheney and his administration’s dark arts.
The fast cutting is jarring, but brings home the point: one thing leads to another; while Cheney is safe and sound, his victims are not. Walter Benjamin’s line is starkly appropriate: "There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." In 2015, it was reported that as many as two million people had died in the US war on terror. The oil company Halliburton was awarded at least $39.5 billion in federal contracts related to the Iraq war from 2003 to 2013.
Cheney was the mastermind of the war on terror, and he was also the CEO of Halliburton, before cutting a deal with George W Bush to become the most powerful Vice President the United States had ever known. In the film, we hear him tell his wife Lynne (played very well by Amy Adams, as Lady Macbeth meets Martha Stewart) that the company have given him a $26 million payout.
Despite the dramatic shift in the public mood away from the Iraq war, despite the chaos and the loss of life (American, as well as foreign), Cheney remained unmoved. He was in the right. If anything, the public’s growing hatred of the war entrenched his position further. He was doing what was right, not what was popular. Like Tony Blair, he’d do it all over again.
There are, for men like Cheney, hard realities. Grownups engage with those realities. They bomb and they kill and they torture, but they do these things because the world is the way it is and we – the coddled infant citizens of the West – must be protected. And if there’s money to be made, well then that’s another hard reality as well.
In the voiceover and in direct addresses to camera, Cumberbatch’s Cummings commentates on what is happening. He isn’t trying to force us into agreeing with him, but he is being set up, again, as the smartest man in the room, the man who’s read the biggest books on the shelf and can slay all those mouth-breathing MPs and voters with his strategic thinking.
In Vice, Cheney addresses the camera at one point, to unapologetically tell us that we are all a part of this, that he did it all for us (an assumed American, or western you). He becomes a chilling, measured version of Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men. In his famous “You can’t handle the truth” speech, Nicholson’s furious army officer tells Tom Cruise’s young lawyer that it is men like him who "stand on the wall", who keep the world safe for naive and contemptible idealists like Cruise.
In the wake of 9/11, the real Cheney spoke of using the "dark side", of inhabiting the “shadows in the intelligence world” in order to get things “done quietly, without any discussion”. What this ended up meaning in practice was, among other things, the CIA’s torture programme, whose practices ranged from waterboarding to anal penetration to forms of horror adapted from the medieval age.
These horrors were committed as part of a system. Cheney was a crucial part of this, but he was of the system, not outside it. Cummings, too, is a product of Britain’s political class, however frustrated he is with it. The failures we are dealing with are longstanding. The films that engage directly with those failures may just have made the mistake of believing a few bad apples have spoiled the bunch.