We may​ think all biopics are biofantasies, in which case the opening title card of Adam McKay’s new film Vice will have us laughing already. After all, he is the former Saturday Night Live writer who made The Big Short, a very funny movie about the 2008 financial crisis. The card says: ‘The following is a true story.’ If we aren’t laughing, we may be wondering, ‘True to what?’ And we certainly need to rework the narrator’s question, which we hear soon after: ‘How does a man go on to become who he is?’ We later learn that our narrator is dead at the time of speaking, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on his logic. Even so, this is not the question the film asks. The film’s question is, ‘Who do we want our central character, in this case Dick Cheney, to have been, and how far did he oblige?’

Cheney, played by Christian Bale, whose other larger than life roles include Bruce Wayne, Patrick Bateman and Jesus, looms effectively in the film, as he should – nothing is quite so visible in a movie as a supposedly invisible man. Bale is terrific in the part but he is not the film’s hero. He is its plump, ever present ghost. The hero is Donald Rumsfeld. This is what you get when you assign an extraordinarily gifted comedian, in this case Steve Carell, to a historical part. You get an act. This Rumsfeld is funny, rude, cynical and so cheerful about his misdeeds that even the best of liberals will find it hard to keep them in focus. When Cheney, whom Rumsfeld is mentoring at the time, asks his senior what they believe in, Rumsfeld pauses for a flash of fake surprise, and then bursts out laughing. He goes into his office, closes his door, and we hear his laughter continue for a long moment. Critics have found this scene too cheap an attack on too easy a target, but they should try to learn from the imaginary Rumsfeld. As far as I can see, belief and conscience are not currently getting much of the last laugh in politics, in the US or anywhere else. When Cheney as vice president fires Rumsfeld, the tables are curiously turned. Carell’s Rumsfeld is cheerful as always when he answers the phone. Once he understands what’s happening he looks surprised, a little upset but not flustered, and by the time the call is over he is quite composed. He has managed to turn the bad news into one more triviality to be ignored. I doubt whether the historical Rumsfeld had a reaction that was anything at all like this, but Carell’s performance is very convincing on its own terms. This man doesn’t know the meaning of moral disarray. There isn’t anything he can’t turn into a bad joke.

There is an amazing moment in the film when something like the reverse happens: within the film, history corrects fantasy. Cheney is saying how much he admires Richard Nixon, and in particular, his ‘impish smile’. The idea is a cliché without much content, and not much in Cheney’s line. Even so, we aren’t prepared for its immediate visual contradiction. The screen fills with a picture of Nixon. He isn’t smiling, he is leering, and he doesn’t look impish. He looks threatening, positively satanic. The real Nixon was probably nicer than the photo. A little nicer.

And speaking of the satanic, we have to acknowledge that Cheney is not the villain of the picture either. That is his wife, Lynne, wonderfully played by Amy Adams as a sort of Doris Day doubling as a wicked witch. She never wavers, is never confused, always knows what she thinks. She doesn’t believe Dick should accept George W. Bush’s invitation to run for vice president because it’s ‘a nothing job’. She says things like, ‘Half the world wants to be us; the other half fears us’; and, ‘If you have power people will always try to take it from you. Always.’ She even invents Dick Cheney, or at least converts him from a drunken gambler in Wyoming into a political hotshot in Washington DC. He’s been in trouble with the police twice, she says at the beginning, and once more would be too many. He’s never in that kind of trouble again, and even Dick himself recognises the power structure. When he and everyone else thinks he’s about to die, he says to his daughters, ‘This is the one time I can’t do what your mother wants, girls.’ Lynne has just told him to go on living, as if it were a matter of will or obedience.

However, there are other forces at work, which make clear we are watching a historical fairy tale rather than a drama with a historical basis. There is magic in the air. Cheney doesn’t die on his deathbed, he gets a heart transplant. This did happen, in 2012, three years after he left the vice president’s office. There were rumours about special treatment, and questions about who the donor was. Cheney said he didn’t know and would always be grateful to the memory of whoever it was. In the movie, though, we cut from the scene of his apparent dying to the scene of an accident that makes available the heart Cheney needs. It seems as if the all-powerful ogre has followed Lynne’s instructions after all, telepathically arranging the violent death of … er … the man who is narrating the movie. And some viewers of this film are still worrying about probability.

McKay likes to play with conventions. Cheney was a congressman for Wyoming from 1979 to 1989 and it did look for a while after that as if his political career was over. The film shows the Cheney family in an idyllic rural setting, breeding Labradors and immensely rich from Halliburton oil money. The credits start to roll, the closing music strikes up, and we start looking at our watches. Surely the movie has more than an hour to go. It does. The credits stop. Just kidding.

We needed the break, though, because the dark film begins here, with the career in the aftermath of what was supposed to be a career. We had a glimpse of this development right at the start of the film, when we saw Cheney in action during the terrorist attacks of 2001, giving orders, telling George Bush where to hide. Our not entirely reliable narrator remarks that Cheney saw in these events ‘an opportunity we hardly noticed’. An opportunity for what? Well, for becoming the secret evil emperor, the ‘quiet man’ who makes everything happen (a title card tells us, ‘While others act, he plans. When they finally rest, he strikes’). Did Cheney really invent the Iraq War as part of a long-term strategy? Create Isis by accident? The immediate answers don’t do much for us. ‘No’ lets Cheney off the hook, and ‘Yes’ lets too many other people off the same hook. The great threat of the end of Bush’s second term as president was ‘quiet’ but very real and involved the shifting of the rickety life of a democracy into a permanent state of emergency, where whatever a president decided would be legal. Antonin Scalia articulates the doctrine in the movie, and there is mention of John Yoo, a clever lawyer who thought war crimes were a thing of the past and could smuggle anything, including torture and boundless invasion of privacy, onto the right side of the law.

The 2008 election prevented a lot of this from happening. If the Republicans had won, would Cheney have continued to govern behind the scenes? Wikipedia says he was ‘the most powerful vice president in American history’, a serious urging of the quiet man argument. No, actually Wikipedia says ‘He has been cited as the most powerful vice president in American history,’ and with this we know where we are in Vice. We are watching a cross between a comedy and a horror movie about our fears, and Cheney is probably as good a focus as any single candidate is likely to be.

‘How many years ahead was he thinking?’ the film asks when Cheney takes the ‘nothing job’, and even Lynne is baffled. How could we or even he know? The query, like the movie as a whole, shows us how fantastic our fantasies are. Fortunately, perhaps, it doesn’t – can’t – tell us whether they are also true.

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