There has been an ongoing debate among critics of the George W Bush presidency: was George W as malicious as his government or was he just a naive puppet? Adam McKay’s film is unambiguous on this question: Bush was a puppet and a secondary figure in and administration that had seen a shift in power that could be called a coup. The villain of the piece is the subject of the film, Dick Cheney.
The cast variously become their roles. Christian Bale appears to have been literally eaten up by a voracious Dick Cheney who has swallowed the actor whole, like No-face in Spirited Away. Steve Carell is initially recognisable as Donald Rumsfeld but as the film progresses, he too appears to be consumed by the power-hungry ghosts. Sam Rockwell plays George W Bush convincingly but gets to survive intact, mainly because George W only gets to be a side-character in his own presidency.
This is a weird film. It flips from straight drama, to documentary, to weird satire and skits. A restaurant scene with Cheney and his co-conspirators in the wake of 9-11 has the waiter present a menu that consists of a variety of excesses and abuses of government power that they think they can get away with. Unable to pick between them Cheney orders the lot.
At other times characters slip into Shakespearean dialogue, a Fox News presenter explains how Republicans began planning for conservative media in the 1970s and archive footage and actors are mixed together.
Tying the mish-mash together are two things. First is a narrator “Kurt” (Jesse Plemons) a younger man with a relationship to Cheney that is not revealed until near the end of the film but who has an extensive knowledge of Cheney’s life, including his hard-drinking years when he is booted out from Yale.
The second thing that holds the film together is the relationship between Cheney and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). Repeatedly helping Cheney through his career, forcing him to get his life together when he is a violent drunk in his twenties and later running his congressional campaign when he is too sick from heart disease to campaign himself.
Despite the intensity of the anger at Cheney throughout the film, the strength of the acting and the focus of the film keeps humanising him. His relationship with his daughters and the close family bonds are shown as a virtue (until finally, Liz Cheney’s own political ambitions cause a split with her sister Mary over marriage equality). Reaching a point in Cheney’s life in the late 1990s when his political career had run dry and he was living a wealthy life on his pay from Halliburton, the film abruptly ends with an explanation that he then lived happily ever after with Lynne and his two daughter’s breeding Labradors — and the end credits roll…
…only to start again as George W Bush becomes Cheney’s next willing victim to his Richard III like machinations. Quickly the film brings itself back to the opening scene with the 9-11 attacks in progress and the Whitehouse in panic and Cheney dispensing Presidential authority as if George W was an irrelevance.
The film is unambiguously polemic. It’s styled as comedy but I can’t say I ever laughed. The jokes are raw and full of pain and horror at the events that follow. Thousands dead, America drawn further into torture and abuse of power and dictatorial -style government: each of these are shown as not simply an outcome of Cheney’s uniquely powerful vice-presidency but part of a long term objective of multiple players within the Republican party.
I don’t know if this is a good film. It certainly has excellent performances and commanded my attention throughout. It’s entertaining in the way a lengthy Twitter rant can be entertaining, a passion fueled diatribe mixing facts and dark jokes and memes and pictures and side explanation into Unitary Executive Theory. It could be called propaganda, it certainly isn’t attempting to provide a balanced perspective on Cheney, but if anything it is too manic to be propaganda — at its worst, it is like being cornered by a drunk guy at a party who wants you to understand why democracy is a sham. The danger in its central message (Cheney was a monster who essentially hijacked the executive authority of the USA and used it to kill civilians and torture people to test the limits of that authority and found that nobody would stop him) is that it leaves you feeling nothing but cynicism. If the rich and powerful can get away with anything then what’s the point?
But by pointing the finger at Cheney the film does something else that is valuable, which is bringing him to people’s attention again. When talking about the film before going to see it, I was struck by how many people were initially puzzled by ‘Dick Cheney’ as the name. People have forgotten him, which isn’t unusual for a Vice President but is notable given the power and control he had.
The hodge-podge of styles and side lectures might be grating for some. Amy Adams and Christian Bale are well worth seeing. The story is full of pain and anger.