It’s amazing what actors will do to win an Oscar. Christian Bale, renowned for his method acting (and good looks), put on 45 lbs to play Dick Cheney; the efforts have resulted in a spot-on resemblance to the real thing, due to the all-over prosthetics and an uncannily creepy performance, but also nominations for both best actor and best make-up! Amy Adams, so mesmerising in TV series Sharp Objects, stuck to her character, Lynne Cheney, for the whole shoot, even having political arguments with the director. It’s paid off though – she also has best supporting actress nomination…
Adam McKay reassembles much of the cast of The Big Short, as well its directional style, in this narrated bio-pic. I admit I didn’t much like The Big Short; this is a much more serious film, with very little humour about it: the subject matter is simply too dark.
We all know who Dick Cheney is of course – former Vice President of the US and CEO of Halliburton. Most people also know the level to which Halliburton, where he was CEO (and one assumes a shareholder) before the Iraq war, profited from the spoils. But I had no idea to what extent this superficially quiet man, who was chucked out of Yale for drunkenness and fighting, has shaped the state of contemporary American politics and set the stage for Trump’s roughshod ride over democracy.
The rise of our American Machiavelli from a simple Wyoming boy who loves his fishing into the godfather of the White House unfolds at the sinister deliberate pace of its seemingly plodding anti-hero. Rising to Lynne’s ultimatum to clean up his act or else, he becomes an intern under Donald Rumsfeld, caught to a Tee by Steve Carrell. Rumsfeld took a lot of flack for the Iraq war, so we already know he’s a baddie, and Cheney is an eager pupil. His blobby, almost expressionless face with its calculating gaze and shambling walk hide an ambition to dwarf all others and compares only to Frank Underwood’s in House of Cards– which this film frequently reminds me of. Bale said he took ‘Satan’ as his inspiration for the part.
At the core lies the question, articulated by the anonymous narrator, why no one noticed ‘how a monotone bureaucratic Vice President came to power… achieved a position of authority that very few leaders in the history of America ever have…And he did it like a ghost. With most people having no idea who he is or where he came from. How does a man… go on to become… who he is?’ Now I know.
After Carter is elected Cheney is out in the cold for a while, but he can’t resist an invitation to be running-mate to George W, played by Sam Rockwell as a drunken bumbling idiot, without a brain in his head whose sole desire is to impress his Daddy, George Snr. Cheney accepts, on his ‘different… understanding… I can handle the more mundane… jobs. Overseeing bureaucracy… military… energy… and, uh… foreign policy’.
Dumb-ass Dubya accepts and this is where it gets really nasty. He has done a deal with the devil – and it is all legal, or if it isn’t, new laws are passed to make it so. There is an intake of breath as one realises the current despotic and imperial overriding of the decisions of both houses have their bases in Cheney’s evil machinations There are many revelations of this nature which shock to the core…especially over the Iraq war and Afghanistan.
The relationship between Cheney and Lynne is key to his success: she is Lady to his Macbeth. Lying in bed together one night they plot how to take over the White House in pseudo Shakespearean. It is the only scene that made me smile. Other imagery is a bit laboured but nevertheless relevant; our fisherman makes tantalising flies to reel in the big fish, and the river is full of slippery pike and catfish – catch them if you can! McKay likes to tease us in the pretence that there is a shred of decency in Cheney, the family man, who makes his gay daughter off-limits to the media, but when the chips are down we see that even that love is warped by ambition.
There are some great directorial touches to this film: Dubya’s nervous foot-jiggling as he announces the war echoes that of a terrified woman being bombed in Basra; the puzzling connection between the narrator and Cheney; and the brave ending for a movie with the final, to-camera justification, ‘I will not apologise for doing what needed to be done.’ It’s a powerful piece of film-making.
But as with many of the recent spate of biopics, whether contemporary or historical, I am left asking to what extent is history being re-written? I comfort myself that surely Cheney would have sued if he could – though the credits point out that he left almost no paper trial and very little evidence, so did the scriptwriter simply make most of it up? We know its unpalatable to the current first family as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner walked out half-way through a preview.
And, finally, I know the movie is unfair on Dubya, much as we like him to be the butt of our jokes. He was not an idiot as McKay suggests; despite his mispronunciations of various words which led to his public ridicule, he had an IQ in the top 95thpercentile of the population, and he graduated from Yale unlike Dick Cheney.