How ‘Vice’ Explains Trump’s Appeal
The character of Condi Rice does not utter a single memorable line in the new Dick Cheney biopic Vice. Yet for some reason I keep dwelling on her. A large portion of this film is devoted to decisions made by the Bush administration after 9/11—torture, Guantánamo, surveillance, etc.—and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I know, from my time in the Bush White House, that Rice, who served as national security adviser and secretary of State, was one of the people closest to George W. Bush during his presidency. She played a major, if not crucial, role in all of these decisions. But she might as well be a piece of furniture in the film.
Did the filmmakers forget about her? Does woke Hollywood think women can’t lead? Or did the Rice character simply not fit into its well-worn formula for political movies: Bad guys = white + male + conservative?
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The real answer is more instructive. A true depiction of Rice’s influence would have exposed the great lie that holds together this entirely unnecessary film as well as the progressive view of the Bush years—that Bush and his team were puppets of a sinister cabal controlled by the movie’s title character. After all, how could Dick Cheney have masterminded every aspect of the Bush presidency, in service to shadowy oil executives whose faces are literally blurred in the movie, if Condi Rice, or Bush himself, played a major role in these decisions, too? How could the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been Cheney’s nefarious invention if the filmmakers disclosed that not only Cheney, but Rice, the majority of Democrats in Congress, a majority of the American people (as high as 72 percent), the film’s lone voice of conscience Colin Powell, dozens of world leaders and even the Clinton administration that preceded Cheney’s tenure, explicitly supported regime change in Iraq as a matter of U.S. policy? Did Cheney, a man who barely says more than a dozen words at any one time in this film, somehow manipulate and/or sweet talk them all? Is he the world’s greatest criminal mastermind?
Despite its pretenses to the contrary, Vice, of course, doesn’t attempt to challenge—at all—the pat, conventional liberal narrative about the Bush era. You don’t win Oscars that way. So, in that sense, this garbage bag of recycled Bob Woodward/Oliver Stone/Michael Moore revelations is completely unremarkable. And yet in another sense, this film’s existence, coming this year in the Trump era, is extremely important. Because it is a vivid demonstration of why Donald Trump won in the first place—and why he’s got an excellent chance of winning again.
Vice’s self-congratulatory, arrogant, maddening, mix of half-truths and glaring omissions explains why conservatives believe the “mainstream” world offers nothing for them. It also explains why they are so easily seduced and manipulated by conservative outlets and no-nothing political leaders who at least make an effort to take them, and the leaders they admire, seriously. It is easy for conservatives to believe Trump’s claims that the media and the “elites” despise them. Movies like this, with a narrative supported by a broad media consensus, prove that point. And they tick people off.
It is easy, when you think about it, to recall numerous films and TV programs featuring heroic liberal leaders. JFK, FDR, Jed Bartlet, Michael Douglas in The American President, the “good” presidents in the TV series 24. But other than Abraham Lincoln, who is rarely identified as a Republican, the GOP is generally portrayed in popular culture as either incompetent (see George W. Bush), corrupt (Cheney), ruthless (Donald Rumsfeld) or all three. This result is not only historically inaccurate in each of these cases, at least in my experience, it is also boring and occasionally petty. For no apparent purpose other than to embarrass Bush, for example, the movie shows him stumbling around drunk in the Reagan White House, many years before he became president. What relevance does this have to the film? None.
To be sure, there is a great movie that could be made about the war in Iraq, the arrogant assumptions behind it, and the massive intelligence failure that embarrassed the global “smart set.” Or, similarly, a film about the difficult and sometimes faulty decisions made after 9/11. But such movies would have to acknowledge that everyone was implicated in these actions, not just the Republican Party. Maybe Vice fills a vast void in the souls of select moviegoers who have been waiting for decades to watch a sex scene between 60-somethings Dick and Lynne Cheney—in which they preposterously quote Shakespeare to each other with mad gleams in their eyes. But for the rest of us, there was nothing in this film we haven’t heard and read countless times before.
On a personal level, this hit home as I watched the film’s portrayal of Donald Rumsfeld. His talented if improbable portrayer, Steve Carell, obviously knew nothing about the man. Much like the movie’s screenwriters. As it happens, I know Rumsfeld quite well, having worked with him for 15 years and having delved deep into his life while assisting him on three memoirs. Like Cheney and any other person in public life, Rumsfeld is not a perfect human being. He makes mistakes and misjudgments and is fair game for criticism. And I am admittedly far from an impartial observer of him, but then again, so was everyone writing about him in Hollywood who turned him into a crude and cruel caricature.
The film does get one or two things about Rumsfeld right. It is true, as the film asserts, that the Nixon inner circle vouchsafed Rumsfeld, then a senior adviser in the White House, an ambassadorship in Brussels. The movie makes it sound like Rumsfeld was on the losing end of some cynical power play, but in fact the Nixon people didn’t like Rumsfeld because he wasn’t going to break the law for them. At another point in the film, Rumsfeld laughs hysterically when Cheney asks him, “What do we believe in?” The message we viewers are to take, of course, is that Rumsfeld is just some Machiavellian asshole who wants power, not accomplishment. You know, like apparently all Republicans do. What the film doesn’t tell you about Rumsfeld, because it doesn’t fit the narrative, is that the former Illinois congressman was at the time at least considered a moderate, even liberal, Republican who had voted for civil rights bills, was a sponsor of the Freedom of Information Act, supported environmental protections, and was a skeptic of the Vietnam War and the lies being told by the U.S. government. After the fall of Saigon, in fact, when the Ford administration inaccurately informed the American people that all U.S. personnel had been evacuated from the country, aides like Henry Kissinger urged the president not to correct the record. Rumsfeld objected. “This war has been marked by so many lies and evasions,” he said on that fateful day in April 1975, “that it is not right to have the war end with one last lie.”
We don’t see any emotion like that from Vice’s Rumsfeld, except when he’s hiding in a random room at the Pentagon, teary-eyed and crestfallen, after Cheney supposedly double crosses him by firing him. Cheney did not fire Rumsfeld—in fact, he actually opposed Bush’s decision to do so—and Rumsfeld never behaved in such a fashion. Ever. I know this because I was at the Pentagon with Rumsfeld after he was dismissed by the president. There were people crying at the time—members of the military and assorted Rumsfeld aides, but not he. In fact, I can say without fear of contradiction that with the arguable exception of “Hello, Dick,” there is not a sentence in the film attributed to him that the real Don Rumsfeld would have ever uttered. So fixated is Vice on defaming Rumsfeld and Cheney, the filmmakers don’t even save time to kick around another of their boogeymen, Karl Rove, who is basically speechless in the film. As if that ever happened.
And, no, George W. Bush wasn’t a good-natured imbecile who just munched on ribs while Cheney conned him out of his presidency. No, Colin Powell was not hoodwinked by Cheney and the neocons into delivering his fateful speech to the United Nations about WMD in Iraq—since Powell specifically, and wisely, insisted on going over every line of that speech personally with intelligence officials before delivering it. No, Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only Democrat convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was going to use them. The Democrats were in some ways more determined to get Saddam out than the Republicans—because they didn’t want to look weak as the 2004 elections approached. For that matter, I doubt the real-life Lynne Cheney married Dick Cheney, as the film tells us, so that he could be her punch card to power. Maybe, astonishing as it sounds, she loved him.
Much has been made in the press about Vice “humanizing” Dick Cheney. Hollywood’s idea of humanizing someone it despises is allowing that they love their children—like Darth Vader giving it all up for Luke at the end of Star Wars. But they can’t give Cheney even that in the end. At first, the film shows him lovingly accepting his daughter Mary as she tells him of her sexual orientation and even giving up his presidential aspirations to protect her. But later, in a scene that was clearly invented, the Mary accuses her parents of coldly throwing her under the bus on the issue of gay marriage when it suits their other daughter’s political purposes. The true backstory is this: Liz, running for office in Wyoming in 2013, was being attacked by fellow Republicans for supporting gay marriage, since she had a gay sister. Liz expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, putting her at odds with Mary’s view. While Dick Cheney himself had supported gay marriage since 2000, he issued a statement defending Liz’s differing stance. Same-sex marriage was a difficult topic for many people, so it wasn’t unusual for one daughter to have a different view of it than another and for a parent to still love them both. Not long before that, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had opposed same-sex marriage, too. It was also perfectly understandable for a father to want to help his other daughter any way he could, and Liz was losing the race badly. This clearly painful, anguishing dilemma is not explained to viewers at all. Instead, we are shown Cheney, looking down absently, while a tearful Mary accuses him of betrayal. We are left with this: to the creators of Vice, the actual Darth Vader is in the end a better dad than Darth Cheney.
I watched these various scenes of people I knew and had worked with at first bemused. But over time I became annoyed. Then angry. I thought: Who the hell are these people to so totally rewrite history in order to support some left-wing fantasy?
I think Trump as a general rule has been a disaster as president. But after this film, I’d be lying if I said somewhere in my head a thought didn’t flicker: Trump is right about these guys. Then I wondered, as I’m sure many, many others have, What’s in it for me to side with a left-of-center cohort that doesn’t care about inconvenient facts any more than he does? That’s the real vice of Vice.