Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Ignorance is dangerous. That is the clear, unsubtle thesis statement of Adam McKay’s Vice, a film that correlates the quiet rise of Dick Cheney in the American government with the creation of the turbulent, divided, hateful American society that exists today. While most could make the argument that “correlation does not equal causation,” the film makes quite the case for this connection, showing how Cheney has either actively or indirectly perpetuated pervasive social myths, changed the government to suit his and his lobbyists’ needs, and took advantage of a desperate, scared America that was still reeling after 9/11. Through this, Vice essentially rages at the American public, claiming they are ignorant, lazy imbeciles who are letting power-hungry sociopaths use them to keep the rich as rich as possible… and this caustic attitude is what I admire about it. However true the goings-ons are in the film, the film successfully captures the very real frustration many people have with the current state of the country, and accomplishes this by satirizing the very genre of film it occupies. The result is one of the most refreshing biopics I have seen in quite some time.
Usually, biographical or historical films tend to portray their subjects in a rather positive light, emphasizing their major contributions and likable attributes, and brushing over or romanticizing their more controversial traits. Perhaps the best way to show this is through a comparative example, so let us compare Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, and Madonna’s W/E. Both of these films depict the same historical event: Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, leaving his stuttering brother George to take the throne. The former portrays Wallis as a Nazi-sympathizing harpy who drew the hapless Edward away from his responsibilities, while the latter paints Wallis in a much more sympathetic light, glossing over the Nazi element to explore her scandalous romance with Edward. Basically, films have the power to frame the same, widely-accepted fact in very different ways, based on what the end goal is. So… how accurate are these “true stories” that seem to suck up most of the Oscars during Awards Season? Are they actually insightful, or do they simply reaffirm beliefs about how wonderful historical figures are?
Vice addresses this conundrum almost immediately, and rather directly. Near the beginning, the film displays text that makes it clear how Dick Cheney (played extremely well by an unrecognizable Christian Bale) went to great lengths to keep his private and public life a secret, but claims that the film “did its fucking best” to accurately depict things in spite of that. The film also consistently emphasizes an unrealistic connection between the decline of Cheney’s heart, and his corruption of the country. He has heart attacks at convenient points in the story, and the film is actually structured around his eventual heart transplant in 2012, though how that is the case is a pretty major spoiler. There are also many allusions to Shakespeare's MacBeth, as Lynne Cheney (played spectacularly by Amy Adams) is basically the modern version of Lady MacBeth. At the very beginning of the film, she yells at Dick to man up and become the family breadwinner (since she is unable to, considering the time period), and spouts lines directly from the play in one scene. Vice also makes fun of how the scrolling text explaining “where they are now” at the end of these films is almost overwhelmingly positive, sometimes using it to make comments that are clearly untrue, but sound nice and comforting. This is the most inconsistent aspect of the film, because the text is meant to be read seriously at points, but there is a clear difference between the serious stuff and the satirical stuff - the former always goes to great lengths to be blunt, and extremely negative.
It is through the subversion of these accepted, historical-film tropes that Vice is able to portray its deep hatred of the average, ignorant person who chooses to view the world through rose-colored glasses, and how movies in this genre typically cater to this ideology. Instead of glossing over the problematic elements to make the subjects more likable, the film goes all-in on the ugly aspects. Instead of romanticizing history and letting the audience comfortably watch problematic figures do the positive things they are famous for, the film never shies away from an instant in which it can take shots at Cheney or his associates. George W. Bush (played by Sam Rockwell) definitely gets the short end of the stick in this regard, because he’s depicted as a complete buffoon who let Cheney take the reins at every major opportunity. Never have I seen such an unflattering portrayal of a historical figure in a film like this-- and I’ve seen The Death of Stalin, which portrays so many famous Russian leaders as bumbling idiots.
Anyway, it is worth noting that, while the film definitely seems to hate Cheney, he is not portrayed as a man without positive attributes. There is a great scene in which Cheney tells off Lynne’s abusive father, ordering him to never approach his wife and daughters again. This is also not the only moment in which Cheney is shown in a positive light, which is something I must give the film credit for, because it gives the character a duality, one that becomes much more blurred as the film goes on. Many of his virtues are twisted into immense vices by the end of the film, as Cheney remains intensely loyal to his political sphere, even when it undeniably commits horrible crimes… and he eventually becomes the perpetrator of those crimes, by becoming the puppet master of many ignorant puppets.
Whenever the American public is portrayed in this film, they are stupid pawns, completely oblivious to how other, much smarter, more sinister people are targeting their most base fears to make themselves more powerful. For instance, focus groups of average Americans come together twice in the film, so the government can observe what makes them tick. The first instance focused on the “death tax,” a fake moniker for a heavy real estate tax on the rich. However, since most Americans won’t support a tax for the very rich, this specific tax was renamed, so it seems to have a wider reach on the public than it really does. The second time focused on the War on Terror, in which multiple people in the focus group talked about how they knew a war was going on, but had no clear picture of an enemy in their heads. Thus, Cheney and his lackeys went on to start the Iraq War to get a foothold on the country’s oil, using threatening and emotive terms like “weapons of mass destruction” and “the enemy combatant” to make this action more logical to the average person.
Now, it is fair to say that a good portion of these plot points sound like something a conspiracy theorist might come up with, and some may find the condescending nature of the film hard to stomach. Neither of these criticisms are untrue, admittedly; like I stated earlier, “correlation does not equal causation,” even though the film does go to great lengths to prove the correlation. Also, I completely understand how intelligent film-goers may feel like this film talks down to them, that its lack of subtlety and abrasive attitude is hard to tolerate. Even so, can’t help but agree with many of the points it raises, regardless of how accurate the information is. Ignorance has always run rampant in the world, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how to turn that ignorance into fear and hatred. And, as the film shows us, Dick Cheney, nor anyone else in the government, was definitely not a rocket scientist. Instead, those in the government were successful mass manipulators. And why did we let them manipulate us? Why do we continue to let them? Why is humanity so consistently fallible to all this, especially in an age where we have access to so much information, and so much knowledge? Why does the general population choose to remain ignorant when that is perhaps the most dangerous path to tread, considering how it leaves you vulnerable to these mass manipulators?
Vice is frustrated that these questions have to be asked in the first place. It wants the population at large to wake up, and become more aware of all the forces at play that want to manipulate them into serving a cause that actively hurts both them and others. It wants people to feel sorry for how stupid and ignorant they are, because that mindset robs us of your own freedom, which is something you should feel sorry for giving up so easily. Essentially, Dick Cheney, and his associates, may have committed atrocious acts, but only because we let them. Ignorance isn’t just dangerous, according to this film; instead, it is the ultimate vice.