Culture

What’s the point of a vice-presidential biopic?

A new movie about Dick Cheney approaches a world-class tyrant with a humanizing eye.

Culture

Vice

Culture

What’s the point of a vice-presidential biopic?

A new movie about Dick Cheney approaches a world-class tyrant with a humanizing eye.

On Wednesday, the first trailer for Vice, an upcoming biopic about Dick Cheney starring Christian Bale, was released. Vice is the second consecutive “serious” movie written and directed by Adam McKay, who made the tonal pivot after helming definitive ’00s comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, and other mostly beloved Will Ferrell projects. It follows his 2015 film The Big Short, another Bale-starring dip into aughts-era American history focusing on the willful ignorance of the players in the 2008 financial crisis.

Vice seems to be going a similar route, striking a tone that’s somewhere between drama and farce. Bale’s makeup is impeccable, even if his gravelly Cheney is a little too similar to his Batman growl to make you forget who’s under the skin. The trailer focuses on a conversation where George W. Bush (a goofily grinning Sam Rockwell), yet again characterized by a tendency to chew loudly in the audience’s face, asks a far more restrained Cheney to be his vice president. It teases what may be the movie’s core focus: the events that led to Cheney massively revamping the office of vice president, reaching a “different understanding” with Bush and essentially becoming a shadow king who would ultimately leave a horrifying legacy. (Some highlights: doing substantial damage in the Middle East across multiple presidencies, catapulting us further into a surveillance state, finding creative ways to allow torture for prisoners of war, detaining innocent people, expanding executive power, and otherwise screwing up the environment for business interests.)

The trailer is accompanied by “The Man,” a glitzy late-period Killers song. The visuals, from the mildly washed out colors to the bold, bright, blocky sans serif text, seem to de-age the story decades prior to when it actually happened, maybe to a time and cultural context where Dick Cheney’s actions would have been more defensibly heroized. There is layer of camp in all of this, but all the same, it’s hard to miss the fact that the creators are trying really damn hard to make Dick Cheney seem kind of… fun. Cool, even. While there’s no way the publicly left-leaning McKay would carry water for Cheney, this trailer does tease a humanizing approach to the former vice president: “He was a world-class prick whose policies led to the worst era of global politics, but he was a guy, too,” it seems to say.

Vice is far from the first piece of filmed entertainment where a largely unredeemable figure is presented as cool and somehow relatable for the actions that make him reprehensible — just look at the buzz around Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It’s not even the first time it’s been done in politics, with a healthy veneer of camp — there’s House of Cards. But where the potential impact of those shows might be mitigated by their more overtly fictional nature, Vice is a fictional movie about real people who brought about real events. Because of the standards and limitations of biopic as a fictional medium, there are always potential implications for shaping both individual opinions and, more notably, our collective memory of politicians and the history they shape.

Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer, for one, thinks political biopics can complement nonfictional materials in an important way. “In good hands, artists, through fictional films, have the potential to convey things about our history that I can’t do just with a straight narrative, or a documentary filmmaker can't do with a total chronological, factual-based sequence. It can still capture the important part of the essence of a political leader in a way that historians such as myself can’t,” Zelizer explained over the phone.

Of course, there are steps to take in order to do this responsibly. “Even if everything is not chronological or if things are presented that that didn't happen in real life it still has to at some level hold to the real story; it still has to use any alteration of the history to convey something that's real,” Zelizer said. “[The good ones] only move away from the real story to tell something that's really grounded in the period and person they're studying.” He pointed to recent Lyndon B. Johnson biopic All the Way, which focused on a sliver of LBJ’s presidency: the period where he tried to pass civil rights legislation with the help of Martin Luther King Jr. Lincoln, the acclaimed Steven Spielberg biopic, also took this limited approach, by centering on the final days of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

The potential dangers are obvious, too. “There's the risk especially in this day and age of confusing people. If you're in the know, you can respect an artist playing around with the history in order to tell a story. But many people watch it, and they believe what they see. And in an era where you know fact and fiction have become blurrier in politics, there's a danger people will take the film as real regardless of the intention of the person who made it. So you can actually be misleading with these kinds of films. We kind of count too much on a smart viewer but we can't always count on that actually happening.”

But even “smart” viewers can be swayed: If you look at the critical reception for W., the 2008 biopic released before his presidency was officially over, multiple critics went in hating George W. Bush and came out finding him more likeable. It’s certainly not uncommon for people to shift radically from opinions far enough divorced, through time or reframing, from the political actions that shaped them. Just look at the recent “redemption arc” that’s been thrown Bush’s way over the past couple years, despite his clear role in, well… all of the Cheney-related events listed above. And at a point where we’re still trying to untangle all the political implications of the last couple decades, both conceptually and in the context of real consequences, it evokes a kind of revulsion to imagine anyone walking out of the theater thinking, “Well, he was a world-class prick whose policies led to the worst era of global politics, but he was a guy, too.”

“I’m a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being, much the same as I did for Castro, Nixon, Jim Morrison, Jim Garrison and Alexander the Great,” Oliver Stone said when discussing why he helmed the Bush biopic. “The Dick Cheney story is about the effects of power, on a person, on a family,” McKay said when talking about Vice. There’s something to be said about applying a cynical eye to the political machine, but seen through a sympathetic cinematic lens, no portrait of these immensely powerful men and the harm they wrought — a harm we still grapple with, today — will ever be appropriately condemning. “It’s just something that we don’t talk about enough, the psychological effects of power — of consolidated power, a centralized power, and what does it do to you,” McKay also said in that interview. What about what it did to everyone else?

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