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On the screen: farce and fury

Posted By on April 16, 2019 @ 11:30

It was John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, who characterised his office most pithily and dismissively. The formidable Texas Democrat, ‘cactus Jack’, declared that the vice presidency of the United States was ‘not worth a bucket of warm spit’.

Historically, the vice presidency has often been so derided. Asked what Vice President Richard Nixon had contributed on a particular policy issue, President Dwight Eisenhower deadpanned that he needed a couple of weeks to consider the question. Indeed, Nixon discovered that, as vice president, he wasn’t actually a member of the government.

Perhaps this explains why Harry Truman knew nothing of the Manhattan Project, through which America developed the atomic bomb, until he actually assumed the presidency on FDR’s death in April 1945. The vice president was that remote from White House decision-making.

Much has changed for the better since then, particularly given the more assertive nature of vice presidents from Walter Mondale to Joe Biden, through the likes of George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Dick Cheney. When he was vice president, George H.W. Bush, understanding the dangers of being excluded from the centre of power, insisted on a weekly lunch with the president, Ronald Reagan.

But few vice presidents, at least since Aaron Burr, have accumulated and exercised power after the fashion of Cheney. He’s now the subject of a splendid film, Vice, that is part satire and part drama but always engaging.

The movie is hardly a biopic and it certainly isn’t history. Like The Iron Lady, which centred on Margaret Thatcher in decline, Vice has a point to make about Cheney and his years in power and approaches the subject from a liberal perspective. But there’s something in the movie to interest most, from the farcical to the infuriating, and from the disarming to the depressing.

The cast is uniformly impressive, with Christian Bale mesmerising as Cheney, plastered in makeup but having mastered the VP’s distinctive mannerisms, including his facial tics.

Similarly, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld gives a superb performance, driven by the defence secretary’s cynicism and ruthlessness in both internal struggles and policy battles. Originally Cheney’s mentor and promoter, Rumsfeld in his fall from grace offers a salutary lesson to all who aspire to great office.

George W. Bush can’t possibly have been as shallow a lightweight as portrayed by Sam Rockwell. It is a portrait that accords with the popular assessment of the 43rd president, but it would be wrong to accept it at face value, given Bush’s electoral record both as governor of Texas and as president. His success can’t all be down to Karl Rove.

But it’s Amy Adams, as the feisty Lynne Cheney, who steals this movie. It is Lynne who saves Cheney from a dissolute, brawling lifestyle in Casper, Wyoming, causing him to clean up his act, finish college and set out on a Republican political pathway. Rather like the contribution made by the able Laura Bush in her husband’s progress to sobriety and seriousness, Lynne Cheney is a primary character in this film.

Directed by Adam McKay, Vice is an outstanding offering for a broad audience, but there are particularly interesting insights for strategic analysts.

Within the Nixon White House, the president quietly conspired with Henry Kissinger to initiate a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. The consequences for the Cambodian people were devastating. The bombing was never disclosed to Congress and became another avenue of impeachment for Nixon.

Similarly, the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq is shown in terms of ideological and personal imperative, despite the lack of credible intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal or intentions. Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) is sceptical but is obliged to speak at the United Nations Security Council and denounce Saddam. In the years after, Powell regarded the speech as the worst he ever made.

The Bush White House’s treatment of intelligence and its brutal response to critics may be painted in harsh colours, but there’s more than a kernel of truth in what is on the screen, given the legal travails of the vice president’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming is now chair of the House Republican Conference, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. Her sister Mary is depicted as suffering rejection to further Liz’s ambitions. They play politics tough in the open spaces of Wyoming.

The current vice president, Mike Pence, often acts as the Trump administration’s sweeper, bringing coherence to policy tweets by the president. In particular, Pence has been sharply critical of Chinese ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and forthright in opposition to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

That a Republican vice president can take such a role owes much to Dick Cheney, who assumed a position in American government—especially in national security after 9/11—that was powerful in every dimension.

Vice is political cinema at its best: robust and confronting while telling a tale of power in practice.

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