“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” runs the French author Rochefoucauld’s maxim. So much of the background hum of contemporary politics is a whirligig of straightforward hypocrisy and poses of anti-hypocrisy – “how can an Islamophobic Tory call out an anti-Semitic Corbynista?’” “Trump colluded with Russia? Yeah but what about Hillary’s emails?” – that it can be hard to know when vice is paying tribute to virtue or virtue to vice.
Dick Cheney, played by a fattened up Christian Bale, is Vice, aka Vice President, in Adam McKay’s new film (title… Vice!) – a rather banal pun for a supremely banal film.
Biopics suffer from a common fault – they often rely on spurious anecdotage from early life to explain why a film goes on to spend time illuminating choice personality traits. Ah yes – gosh how funny, the audience tuts – that’s where so and so got that famous up and at ’em’/brave attitude or that fatal flaw.
Cut to Dick Cheney’s college years. He gets into Yale; then gets chucked out. Cue lingering segue shots of Dick’s dire grades. “Dick got the boot” explains the portentous voiceover. Camera zooms straight over a pair of boots, because, if you hadn’t guessed it, Dick – he got the boot.
Cut to Dick being dressed down by his wife, Lynne. He gets in a fight; spends the night in a police cell. Lynne Cheney is fed up and tells him to get his act together in a ‘You were meant to be a high-flyer’ kind of act. Then cut to Dick sitting all cheery in Washington DC about to start an internship in Congress – he got his act together then. Welcome to the film.
McKay’s stylistic quirks (fourth wall speechifying, crass visual metaphors and spell out the story voiceovers), so effective in The Big Short when layered into a tight narrative pathway drawn out by Michael Lewis, a superlative story-teller, come across as tired, unconvincing tropes when set aside McKay’s drab storytelling: a grand, potted tale of the history late twentieth and early twenty first century America, including all the greatest hits of the conspiratorial worldview of the far-Left and the alt-Right – Bilderberg-style big money think tanks control politics, every four years well-heeled ad execs fix elections, Iraq happened because of Big Oil.
And Cheney is portrayed as this new world system’s central personality – when Bush wavers as then Secretary of State Colin Powell complains that the intelligence on WMDs doesn’t stack up, Cheney whispers assurance in his ear. Bush immediately agrees to invade Iraq; next shot, bomb blasts in Baghdad.
In this assessment, civil political life is reduced to total arbitrariness – a “war of all against all” in effect – a short clip of Obama’s inauguration depicts his time in office as a bathetic and pointless deviation from the norm, a rejoinder to a spiralling ultra-violent montage of the war on terror.
Quite a lot of the last portion of the film is devoted to Dick’s eldest daughter Liz Cheney’s nascent political career, during which she betrays her Lesbian sister by campaigning against gay marriage (with Dick’s assent) to get office, illustrating the wholly unsubtle thought that it is the Cheneys of this world that endure, those who are ready to do anything to get power and to use it unapologetically and absolutely.
In more sophisticated dramatizations of politics and the kinds of personalities that make a success of it (Francis Underwood of the US version of House of Cards, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Webster’s Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi to name a few), the audience is invited to grapple with the problem of power and how it is represented by its functionaries – how politicians make difficult (and sometimes desirable) trade-offs between morality (virtue and vice), and its mask (hypocrisy and sincerity).
But Cheney is denied a complex inner life to suit McKay’s Big Point about what he thinks American politics has become, a synthesis of ideas that wouldn’t make the final edit of a Michael Moore documentary with notions about the modern state that can be gleaned from a quick reading of Thomas Hobbes’s Wikipedia entry.