Last year, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean caused a stir with her book Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. MacLean’s volume centered on the “public choice theory” of economist James Buchanan, a staple of contemporary conservative and libertarian thought, which argues that incumbent members of government are motivated by the goal of maximizing their own power. In MacLean’s telling, public choice theory is little more than a revanchist smokescreen for white supremacy—and it provides the key to understanding the endgame for the conservative fusionist project.
Adam McKay’s new Dick Cheney biopic takes more than a page from MacLean’s playbook. Less a biographical drama than a sprawling polemic, it spends most of its time ruminating on the evils of the “unitary executive theory”—the view of the Constitution that treats the President as the source and end of all executive-branch authority. This, McKay theorizes, is the thread connecting the Iraq War, large-scale deregulation, the rise of Roger Ailes and Alex Jones, torture in Abu Ghraib, and a myriad of other bugbears.
Who, you ask, is to blame for this cancer? According to McKay, none other than Cheney himself.
In broad strokes, Vice follows Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a Yale dropout and staffer for Representative Donald Rumsfeld (a forgettable Steve Carell) all the way to his time as George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) vice president. Always lurking in the background is Cheney’s ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who cuts a Lady Macbeth figure here. (In perhaps the film’s most absurd sequence, the two conspire together in Shakespearean English while lying in bed.)
In McKay’s story, Cheney tricks a slow-witted Bush into ceding massive amounts of executive authority in order to secure Cheney as his running mate. Electoral victory follows. And then, empowered by the unitary executive theory—which, McKay theorizes, was cooked up by Cheney and a cackling young Antonin Scalia in a White House boardroom—Cheney presides over the transformation of the American government into a dystopian hellscape. (Why? We have no idea.)
As should be obvious, this is not subtle stuff—or even really accurate. For one thing, the general idea behind unitary executive theory is not controversial in the legal academy. As center-left legal scholars Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig wrote in 1994, “no one denies that in some sense the framers created a unitary executive; the question is in what sense.” And moreover, it makes little sense to blame the Bush administration for today’s imperial executive: what of FDR and LBJ?
In short, from a cinematic standpoint, McKay’s conspiratorial obsession with the unitary executive is a shame. In fact, it causes him to lose sight of the much more interesting questions his film raises. Frustratingly, McKay never really cares to explore how the Iraq War became neoconservatives’ Waterloo. In McKay’s telling, the whole war was merely a pretext for selling off the country’s oil fields to the highest bidder.
Totally absent is any sense of shipwrecked optimism—of the tragic failures of liberal internationalism. It’s hard to deny that the years following the fall of the Soviet Union were flush times for globally minded thinkers—there’s a reason Francis Fukuyama penned his “end of history” thesis. But McKay takes today’s post-Iraq jadedness as a foregone conclusion. He’s not interested in why thinkers of the early aughts might’ve seen liberal democracy as the inevitable future—and his movie suffers badly for it.
In the closing moments of Vice, Cheney turns to the audience and breaks the fourth wall, daring them to question his administration’s actions. Has there been another 9/11? Do Americans sleep safer now? Was the war worth it, if it meant American civilians might live in relative peace? These are fundamental questions of morality and statecraft, but McKay never lets us believe that Cheney’s posing them in good faith. They’re framed as cynical PR justifications that no one—speaker or audience—is permitted to seriously confront. And this refusal to allow for nuance—to allow Vice to be anything other than a ham-fisted denunciation of its subjects—blunts the power of its critique. (Even more unconscionable: the film’s total failure to acknowledge the Obama administration’s embrace of NSA surveillance and its expansive drone strike campaigns.)
None of this is to say that the film isn’t watchable. For all its thematic faults, Vice is actually pretty engaging—in large part due to Bale’s fantastic performance as an “anti-Bruce Wayne” figure. Although we never really get to know what makes Cheney tick, that’s on McKay: Bale does his best with the thin material he’s been given. And from an editing standpoint, Vice (just like McKay’s prior film The Big Short) clips along at a steady pace, never letting itself get bogged down in stray tangents. Visual panache is everywhere: a sequence midway through the film, which uses stylized playing cards to depict the distribution of D.C. political power, is especially memorable.
But for all its verve, one finds it hard to ignore the yawning proficiency gap between Vice’s craftsmanship and its content: over and over, Vice comes off more like a Dinesh D’Souza documentary than a genuinely robust criticism of the Bush years. For better or for worse (but mostly for worse), it is a fundamentally unserious film, one tailor-made for the era of unsubtle Twitter takes. And that tendency is rather more frightening than the unitary executive theory itself.