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‘Vice’ dissects the unbridled pursuit of power

“Vice” (2018). Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Matthew Jacobs, Kyle S. More, Kirk Bovill, Sam Massaro, John Hillner, William Goldman, Paul Yoo, Joseph Beck, Tony Graham, Alex Kingi, Terri Cavanaugh. Archive Footage: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Mike Pence, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeff Sessions, Bill O’Reilly. Director: Adam McKay. Screenplay: Adam McKay. Web site. Trailer.

Power makes much possible. It can be wielded to achieve tremendous, beneficial outcomes. It can also be mangled in contorted ways to fulfill self-serving ends. But, no matter how it’s employed, power comes with consequences of either a positive or negative nature, both individually and collectively. Learning how to manage it to attain desired outcomes while avoiding unintended harm is thus crucial to make the best use of it, a challenge frequently put to the test as seen in the life of an ambitious politician, a story depicted in the new comedy-drama biopic, “Vice.”

In 1963, almost no one would have predicted that slacker Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) would ever amount to anything. The hard-drinking party boy from Wyoming was bounced out of Yale for his excessive boozing and penchant for fighting, behaviors that proved a major disappointment to his honors student girlfriend, Lynne (Amy Adams). In the wake of his unceremonious departure from the halls of the Ivy League, he returned home to take a job as an electrical lineman – and to resume his rowdy ways. And, when those reckless habits got him in trouble again – this time with the authorities – Lynne issued an ultimatum to clean up his act or else.

“President” Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) makes big plans to forward his agenda by unconventional means in director Adam McKay’s new biopic, “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

When faced with the prospect of losing the woman he loved, Cheney opted to settle down. In what many would call a miraculous turnaround, within a few years, he managed to land a position as a Congressional intern in Washington, DC, working in the office of Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R-IL) (Steve Carell), an egocentric, Barnum-esque House member whose influence was steadily growing. The conservative, eminently demanding Congressman initially looked upon the sheepish new arrival somewhat contemptuously, but, as “Rummy” came to see what the quietly crafty Cheney was capable of, he developed an appreciation for the young apprentice, becoming a mentor and helping him climb the ladder of Washington insiders.

Before long, Cheney’s star quickly ascended. He moved up the ranks of power, joining Rumsfeld in the White House Chief of Staff’s office as his guru’s assistant. And, when Rumsfeld was later appointed Secretary of Defense in the administration of Gerald Ford (Bill Camp), Cheney succeeded his former boss as the President’s right-hand man. He was clearly on the move.

However, after Ford’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election, Cheney was out of a job. Nevertheless, the driven politico was not to be deterred; he used the opportunity to run for Congress as Wyoming’s delegate to the House of Representatives in 1978, a position to which he was elected and held for 10 years. From there he would go on to serve as Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush (John Hillner). And, after a hiatus during which he was CEO of the energy industry multinational Halliburton, he would become Vice President under President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), a mere heartbeat away from the highest office of the land.

With the advice of his ambitious wife, Lynne (Amy Adams, left), Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale, right) seeks to move up the ladder of power in Washington politics in the new comedy-drama, “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

Ironically, it was his own heart that would periodically betray him. He suffered five heart attacks between 1978 and 2010, along with other cardiovascular-related health issues. Somehow, though, he managed to keep going, despite the setbacks. Yet, considering the way he typically went about his business, one can’t help but wonder, metaphorically speaking, if the underhanded methods he routinely employed to expand his powers were responsible for taking such a toll on him.

Those underhanded methods were rooted in his skillfully practiced art of manipulation. He was a master at getting his way by tactfully convincing others about the supposed merits of his point of view and making them believe that these ideas were, in fact, their own, enabling them to take credit (or blame) for what they brought about. This was particularly true during his tenure as VP, leading Bush to believe that he was actually calling the shots.

President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) runs his office with ideas carefully suggested to him by his second in command in director Adam McKay’s ambitious new biopic, “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

Cheney’s artful maneuvering, especially when he was second in command, was made possible by a number of tactics based on radical (and some would say questionable) new interpretations of what was considered legally allowable. For instance, Cheney and his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) contended that, as Vice President, he was essentially answerable to no particular branch of government, leaving him free from oversight. His role as President of the Senate, for instance, separated him from being a member of the executive branch. At the same time, given that he did not actively participate in most Congressional activities, he wasn’t really part of the legislative branch, either. According to this interpretation of his role, such an “unaffiliated” status thus made him a free agent of sorts, allowing him to function largely unencumbered in the cracks between government branches, leaving him more or less unaccountable – and untouchable.

On top of this, Cheney managed to expand the power of the presidency (and, by extension, his own power, given the nature of his standard operating practices) by becoming an ardent advocate of the unitary executive theory. According to this theory, the President possesses the power to essentially rule as he sees fit, almost as if he were a monarch or dictator, enabling the chief executive to function in an almost Machiavellian way. After conferring with legal consultant John Yoo (Paul Yoo), who heartily gave the theory his blessing, Cheney embraced it and went on to convince Bush of its validity, leading the commander in chief to believe that he could take charge and govern according to his own prerogatives. Of course, given how the relationship between Bush and Cheney operated, the ideas that the President put forth were seldom his own, but, with the mandate he believed he possessed, he moved forward to further their implementation. Cheney thus had the means to get his agenda put into place without actually holding the title of chief executive, quite a coup if there ever were one.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), once a mentor to Vice President Dick Cheney, proves to be a valuable ally in furthering the VP’s agenda, as seen in the new comedy-drama biopic, “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

To help cement his position, Cheney surrounded himself with advisors who zealously supported his views and who were effectively capable of countering any opposition put forth by Bush’s counselors. Among Cheney’s cronies were his old pal Rummy (in a return engagement as Secretary of Defense), as well as Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), and the VP’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk). This formidable front proved useful during controversial discussions, such as those in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, in which proponents Cheney and company met opposition from skeptics like Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry). Those oppositional sentiments, which would later prove true, were squelched by the pile-on tactics of the VP’s posse, backed up by Cheney’s silver-tongued schmoozing to manipulate the commander in chief into embracing their views.

The unbridled ambition – some would say “ruthlessness,” as Rummy called it – were crucial to Cheney’s “success” in pushing and securing the elements of his agenda. And, in line with the principles of the unitary executive theory, he would wield that power when the need called for it. Anyone who got in his way would pay a dear price for challenging him, as was the case with covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was intentionally leaked when her husband, Joseph Wilson, publicly blew the whistle on false administration claims about the supposed source of raw materials for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) proves to be a thorn in the side of hawkish elements seeking the launch of the Iraq war, as depicted in director Adam McKay’s “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

In the end, there was virtually nothing to stop Cheney. Given how he functioned, he fundamentally changed how the executive branch works. And, because of this, he helped orchestrate a foreign policy based on principles that served his geopolitical vision and the goals of American business interests, such as those of his former company Halliburton, which, thanks to no-bid government contracts during and after the Iraq conflict, enabled the organization’s stock value to increase by 500 percent. But, in the wake of such developments, one can’t help but ask, are these the principles upon which American democracy was established? And what does that mean for the nation’s future? “Vice” doesn’t directly answer these questions, but it certainly gives us all much to ponder in its wake.

So how did we get to this point? That’s a complicated question, but, if examined in a metaphysical context, we might be able to get a handle on these circumstances. That’s particularly true if we look at them through the lens of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s an incredibly powerful means of shaping our destiny, both individually and collectively. And it’s one that carries consequences for those of us who avail ourselves of it – or who disregard its validity and impact.

Based on how he operated, Cheney was a master of the practice, even if he had never heard of it or was aware of its existence. As his story is depicted here, the outcomes he realized clearly resulted from the beliefs he held. For instance, when it came to defining his role as VP in the Bush administration and in clarifying the parameters of executive power, once he had amassed the input he needed to formulate his beliefs, he unhesitatingly embraced those intents to materialize the reality he wanted to see made manifest. He was resolute in his determination and had faith in his convictions, a potent combination for seeing his hoped-for notions come into being.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan) joins the ranks of a formidable political group seeking to steer the presidency of George W. Bush in a particular direction in the new comedy-drama, “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

Cheney was so thorough in his methods that he figured out how to use his beliefs to create conditions covering all bases. This could be seen through such means as conducting focus groups to measure public opinions about policy issues for determining how to best spin them to the populace. He also believed in controlling the message by massaging the medium through which it was to be disseminated, a reality made possible by funneling carefully crafted information through such select media outlets as Fox News, an opinion-driven cable channel he championed years before it came into being when it was first proposed by his old friend Roger Ailes (Kyle S. More). And, to obtain the legal considerations he required, he actively sought to befriend law professionals like an up-and-coming young attorney named Antonin Scalia (Sam Massaro) who would eventually become a Supreme Court associate justice (Matthew Jacobs). Such a comprehensive approach proved to be a powerful combination to achieve his goals, all brought about by directing his beliefs to create desired manifestations in each of these various areas.

On some level, Cheney had to have been aware of the immense power inherent in this process, and he freely made use of it. Cheney relished this power and unreservedly availed himself of it. And that’s important for all of us to recognize, because it’s crucial to understanding how this practice works. Those who gravitate toward it tend to see their objectives materialize, while those who give their power away are left in the lurch.

That notion is significant in understanding how these conditions arose. While Cheney and his minions willingly embraced the power of conscious creation, many of the rest of us were giving it away, leaving us open to whatever fallout might come our way. Theoretically speaking, one can hardly fault somebody for availing himself of what’s accessible to all of us, even if it’s employed for purposes that many of us would find unacceptable. At the same time, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to follow suit or to counter such practices. And these principles apply in both our individual manifestations and our collective co-creation efforts. In that sense, then, we should probably take this as a cautionary tale to avoid outcomes we’d rather not experience.

Enigmatic everyman Kurt (Jesse Plemons) provides narration for the story of Vice President Dick Cheney in the new comedy-drama biopic, “Vice.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures, © 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

However, even those who boldly make use of the process and avail themselves of its power should be clear about what they’re seeking to create, including everything associated with these efforts. Failure to do so could lead to un-conscious creation or creation by default, wherein a focus purely on outcomes with no consideration for consequences can lead to serious deviations of what’s being sought. Serious side effects can lead to disappointments, delays and distortions of our objectives, some of which can be curiously metaphorical. If you doubt that, consider the personally ironic health issues experienced by a practitioner who became so proficient at implementing what could easily be considered “heartless” ways.

But is such a monodimensionally cold, unfeeling depiction of Cheney accurate? After all, as conscious creators generally know, we’re all multidimensional beings made up of many selves and multiple archetypes, and portraying anyone – even Cheney – to the contrary would be patently unfair. So it is through his family life that we see another side of the protagonist, someone who lovingly cared for his wife and daughters, Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary (Alison Pill). He believed in protecting them and looking after their well-being, so much so that he wouldn’t hesitate to draw the line whenever scrutiny of his home life arose. And he held fast to that view no matter what … except, of course, when political expediency came into play, at which point compromises suddenly became possible. This issue came up, for example, when his daughter Mary’s open homosexuality ran afoul of the conservative values he publicly embraced. He always said he would consider the question of her lifestyle off-limits, but even that position became negotiable when the need arose. It might lead one to observe, “So much for multidimensionality.”

Given Cheney’s portrayal and the depiction of his typical ways of operating, it’s not difficult to imagine that the filmmakers received precious little cooperation from the picture’s subject. There’s even an on-screen statement to that effect at the outset, noting Cheney’s extremely secretive nature and the difficulty associated with obtaining definitive, authoritative information about the life of the VP. That’s where the film’s narrator, an enigmatic everyman named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), comes into play. As someone who claims to know Cheney in a highly unusual but very personal way – a relationship that goes unexplained until a critical juncture in the film – the story presented here in many ways essentially becomes Kurt’s take on Cheney’s life, a personal interpretation that would seem to be borne out by the facts but is not necessarily restricted to them thanks to the “insider” view the narrator provides.

Audiences are thus left to make up their own minds about the veracity and fairness of the depiction presented here, perspectives that are bound to vary widely based on one’s own beliefs about the man and, of course, one’s politics. To be sure, the story has a decidedly left-leaning slant to it, one that’s sure to delight the liberals in the audience but will almost assuredly stoke the ire of right-leaning conservatives. As with anything in conscious creation matters, it’s a question of beliefs. And, interestingly enough, this schism is an issue that, given the current political climate, is just as relevant in evaluating this film as it is in going back and reviewing the historical record it depicts. Even more revealing is how we got to this point and how the protagonist wrangled events in the direction that produced these conditions more than most of us would probably give him “credit” for.

Director Adam McKay’s latest is a capably made film overall, though, admittedly, it’s not as good as I was hoping it would be (and definitely not on par with his previous work, “The Big Short” (2015)). In spite of its excellent performances by Bale, Carell and Rockwell, the production tries to do too much and often gets bogged down in the minutiae of American politics, causing some sequences to become a little snoozy. Also, McKay’s attempts at incorporating cinematic asides of an analogous nature – clever though they may be – don’t work quite as well in this film as they did in his predecessor picture. And then there’s the humor, which only lands about 50 percent of the time, another disappointment. Still, this picture is an insightful look into how Cheney helped orchestrate our current conditions by working the system on multiple fronts, effectively pulling the wool over the eyes of a sleeping public more preoccupied with having its boredom killed than watching out for its best interests. “Vice” thus makes for a potent cautionary tale we should all heed if we hope for matters to improve going forward.

Despite its shortcomings, “Vice” has been widely recognized in awards competitions thus far. The picture has captured six Golden Globe Award nominations, including nods for best comedy, screenplay and director, as well as acting honors for Bale, Adams and Rockwell. In addition, Bale and Adams each earned Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for their respective lead and supporting performances. But the picture came up the biggest winner in the Critics Choice Award contest, taking home nine nominations for best picture, acting ensemble, director, screenplay, editing, and hair and makeup, along with performance honors for Adams and two for Bale (for best actor and best actor in a comedy).

British politician Lord John Acton-Dalberg famously observed that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That admonition is perhaps one of the wisest statements ever uttered by someone in a governing position. It’s also one that aspiring leaders need to take to heart if they hope to be of greatest assistance and service to their constituency. One could argue that it was clearly ignored by the protagonist of this film, that it was, in fact, viewed as more of a green light than an insightful caution. We can only hope that those coming up through the ranks learn from it – and from the lessons of this picture – in terms of their leadership philosophies and practices. There’s a lot riding on it – and that’s the absolute truth.

Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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