An unconventional behind-the-scenes look at former Vice President Dick Cheney’s stealthy rise from Congressional intern to the most powerful man on the planet.
With his entertaining and incisive Oscar-winning The Big Short, writer/director Adam McKay laid bare the Wall Street chicanery that led to the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. In the audacious and subversively comedic Vice, McKay sets his sights on another true story, that of one of the most elusive and secretive minds in modern American political history, Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney.
Spanning a half-century, Cheney’s (Christian Bale) complex journey from rural Wyoming electrical worker to de facto President of the United States is a darkly comic and often unsettling inside look at the use and misuse of institutional power. In McKay’s capable hands, the dichotomy between Cheney, the dedicated family man and political puppet master, is related with intimacy, wit and narrative daring. Guided by his formidable and unfailingly loyal wife, Lynne (Amy Adams) and mentored by the brusque and blustery Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Cheney insinuated himself into the Washington D.C. fabric beginning with the Nixon administration, becoming White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, and after five terms in Congress, Secretary of Defense for George H.W. Bush. In 2000, he left his position as C.E.O. of Halliburton to run as Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) with the implicit understanding that he would exercise almost unchecked control, a co-president in all but name.
Cheney’s cunning and furtive political maneuvering have altered the American political landscape in ways that will continue to reverberate for decades to come. But it is clear there is more than one Dick Cheney, a man whose reputation in the public Spector belies his private life and obvious devotion to his family.
Like many Americans, McKay had little direct knowledge of the elusive, seemingly unknowable Dick Cheney, who served as a virtual co-president to George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009, and in so doing, changed American history if not forever, then certainly for decades to come. “I didn’t know much about Dick Cheney, but as I started reading about him, I became fascinated with him, what drove him, what his beliefs were. I kept reading more and more, and was astounded by the shocking method through which Cheney gained power and how much he has shaped the United States’ current place in the world.”
McKay also read Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Robert Moses titled The Power Broker, another insightful look about one man’s rise to power and the difficult task of holding onto it. “After that, I started reading everything to do with power,” says McKay, “going all the way back to Shakespeare and it was then that the idea for the script began to take shape.”
Cheney was an avid fly-fisherman, a sport that requires patience, a virtue that served him well in his methodical climb up the ladder – both in politics and business, McKay contends. However, none of that would have mattered without the encouragement and ambitiousness of his wife, the former Lynne Vincent, his high school sweetheart. After Cheney flunked out of Yale and was hit with a couple of DUIs, his wife helped turn him around. “Without a doubt, it was Lynne’s ambitious nature that transformed Dick Cheney,” states McKay. “Those who knew her back then said that whoever she would have married would have gone a long way. Otherwise, Dick might have ended up living a quiet life in Wyoming like his siblings.” Cheney became Lynne’s conduit to power, according to McKay. “She had the brains and ambition but realized that, being a woman, certain doors were closed to her. While she might not be able to pull the levers of power herself, she knew how to get someone to pull those levers for her.”
The more he delved into Cheney’s political career, the more he appreciated how complex and far-reaching an influence he has had on contemporary American politics. McKay’s mission, he claims, was to write a script that transcended political beliefs and addressed universal issues. “This was a giant chapter in U.S. political history that I don’t feel has ever been fully examined on screen. A vital piece in the puzzle on how we arrived at this moment in time where political consensus is achieved through advertising, manipulation and misinformation. And Dick Cheney was the man at the center of it.”
After intensive research and numerous first-person interviews, McKay was able to narrow his focus and begin writing the script, according to producer Kevin Messick, who has worked alongside him on several films and, most recently, the HBO miniseries SUCCESSION, another exploration of power manipulation. “Of course, in this case, narrowing the story meant starting in Wyoming in the 1950s and going through to the early years of the 21st century.”
In his comedic films and his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Big Short, McKay layered the time-shifting narrative with unorthodox elements including an unconventional narrator, breaking the fourth wall, comedic surreal moments, documentary footage, and even a pillow-talk conversation between Lynne and Dick Cheney written in iambic pentameter. “Part of Adam’s genius is his freestyle, almost jazz-like approach,” says Messick. “In so doing, he’s created a hybrid genre that audiences respond to, but can’t quite tag. Films like THE BIG SHORT and VICE are not strictly drama nor strictly comedy. But they use elements of both. His unique style is almost part of his DNA.”
For Plan B producers, two-time Oscar winners Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Moonlight, Twelve Years A Slave), who had worked with McKay on THE BIG SHORT, the response to McKay’s script was immediate and wholehearted. “It’s a profoundly ambitious story,” says Gardner, “more an epic than a bio-pic. It unpacks forty years of American
politics and how, in the present day, we have arrived at where we are. But it’s also about American culture and how our society has changed over time.”
“For me, it was combination of elements,” says producer Kleiner. “As with The Big Short, Adam was experimenting with form. He is reaching for a way to tell complicated stories. This was another high wire act of a script that also delivered on an emotional level. His depiction of history gave us an understanding at how we arrived in our current moment, offering an articulated connection between the past, the present and perhaps even the future.”
Both Gardner and Kleiner were struck by McKay’s use of an unconventional narrator (portrayed in the film by Jesse Plemons of The Post and Fargo). Gardner sees him as a metaphorical character, an audience surrogate who takes on various guises throughout the film. “Adam found a way to represent the every man in this story, someone who feels the way most of us do,” she says. “And he did it with humor and specificity, allowing the character to hold the emotional center of the film.” For Kleiner, the narrator speaks to McKay’s egalitarian concerns. “His interests lie in how people are affected by these enormous changes,” he says. “It made sense to access this story through a person who is not rooted in politics but in everyday American life. It’s a clever device that weaves in and out of the story and has emotional affect.”
McKay was equally as interested in exploring the Cheney family as he was in Cheney’s political rise, says Kleiner. “Cheney self-identifies as a family man. He was driven by his wife Lynne, with whom he had a common bond. They both shared ideas with many of the characters in the film, a desire to make sure their family is secure, though perhaps the security sometimes comes at the expense of others who weren’t family. The Godfather dealt with that same subject. It’s hard to reconcile a devoted family man with some of the events that happened on his watch and that’s a big part of Adam’s dramatic arc.” The Cheney family story not only traces his roots as a politician, but also brings a dimensionality and humanity to the story, claims Gardner. “Family was a major part of Dick Cheney’s life and their role in the film provides the audience (and the actors) a way to see these characters from the inside out.”
McKay’s choice to play the quicksilver, Machiavellian Dick Cheney was an open and shut case. He wanted Oscar winner Christian Bale. “I wrote this script with Christian in mind,” admits McKay. I don’t know who else could have done the role and if he decided not to do it, I probably wouldn’t have made the movie.”
“No one ever doubted Christian’s ability to play the part,” says producer Dede Gardner. “As we’ve seen before, his ability to transform and his commitment to a role is unrivaled. We knew it would be a tremendous amount of work and all we wanted is for him to say yes.” Kleiner seconds Gardner’s praise for Bale’s chameleonic abilities: “we experienced that on THE BIG SHORT when Christian wore the real-life character’s clothing on set and spent a great deal of time studying him. The brilliance of his range from funny and lovely to ruthless and frightening is as unparalleled as his work ethic. This film was designed to be a grand epic and who better to carry that off?”
When Bale first heard that McKay wanted him for the role, he thought McKay had lost his mind.
Then he read the script.
“Absolutely brilliant,” says Bale. “It expanded well beyond what I ever expected. It was poignant not just in a political way but in a very personal way. It touched on what it is to be a person, to be part of a family, part of a nation. And, as is Adam’s way, it was bloody funny.” Yet, even given his transformative abilities, it took six months of makeup trials before McKay and Bale were satisfied that they had captured Cheney’s singular appearance. It helped that they were working with makeup artist extraordinaire Greg Cannom, who has won three Oscars (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and a fourth technical Oscar, in addition to numerous other nominations.
As Bale and Cannom experimented with the external Cheney, the actor was busily internalizing the character. According to executive producer Jeff Waxman, Bale studied the character by looking at every video clip and every interview. “He wanted to know everything about Cheney and to absorb it all. He also met with a nutritionist so he could gain the weight in a healthy manner. He had a dialect coach, a movement coach. Anything that he could do to help him transform into Dick Cheney – the way he walked, the way he talked and moved. Then the day we started shooting, he’d become that character. You literally thought Cheney was standing there in front of you.”
To capture Cheney’s essence, Bale and McKay made a deal to approach the character objectively, setting aside any personal feelings about the former Vice President and his policies. “This man was incredibly influential, a man of real gravitas and power and absolute brilliance in how to work the dynamics of government,” says Bale. “I told Adam I needed to come at the character from a positive point of view because the story can never be predictable; it must surprise people and attract them, no matter which side of the political spectrum they’re on. And that required embracing Cheney – with sincerity.”
One of the big revelations for everyone involved in the project was McKay’s depiction of Lynne Cheney as the driving force behind her husband’s ascent. She is so much more than the typical political wife and cheerleader. Intelligent and strategic, largely living her ambitions through her husband and eventually achieving some significant accomplishments of her own.
Again, McKay went after and secured his first choice: five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams.
Even before McKay sent her the script, Adams relished the opportunity to again work with Bale, with whom she co-starred in two of her Oscar cited roles (American Hustle, The Fighter). Like Bale, despite the brilliance of the material, she felt somewhat daunted by the challenge. “It wasn’t merely that I’d be playing Lynne from ages twenty to seventy, but that I needed to create empathy for the character’s laser focus and driving ambition,” Adams notes.
Besides reading the prolific Ms. Cheney’s books on the Constitution and James Madison and her memoir, and watching numerous interviews with her, Adams found a personal way into the character. “Lynne reminded me of my grandma who grew up in Provo, Utah, an agricultural town not so different from Casper, Wyoming. She was not on the surface a warm person. But she was a survivor and I absolutely understood the instinct of survival inside of Lynne, who had been raised without much opportunity. Then, through her writing, I really came to respect her intellect and how she became a self-made woman. She was a straight-A student and basically achieved everything she went after, while at the same time, standing beside this man whom she helped ascend to power. I just liked her chutzpah.”
What amazed the actress about McKay’s writing (and later his directing) is the element of unpredictability. “I think the unexpected is Adam’s signature. There’s so much surprise in what he does, so many unique filmmaking techniques. He’s fearless, and one of the reasons I signed onto this came from the conversations I had with him and how much I came to trust his instincts. He created this freedom for us to be bold.”
For the role of Donald Rumsfeld, McKay tapped Oscar nominated Steve Carell, with whom he’d worked on the Anchorman films and The Big Short. “Just like Christian, Steve had the ability to disappear into this very enigmatic character,” says Messick.
In the film, Carell must pivot from being Cheney’s mentor to being his subordinate, from being brash and almost amoral, to wounded and vulnerable. The trick was not showing the seams, says Messick. “Steve was phenomenal. The two beats in the movie exemplify whey he was so perfect for the role. One is when, early on, Cheney asks him ‘what do we believe?’ And Rumsfeld literally laughs in his face. The other is towards the end, when Cheney fires him and the emotion and loss he conveys in that moment.”
Sam Rockwell, the recipient of the 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was a natural fit for President George W. Bush. “When I was doing Frost / Nixon, Bush was in office and I was looking at the parallels between Nixon and the Pentagon Papers with Bush and Cheney’s Patriot Act. My father told me to watch the news because he said it’s going on right now. This is happening all over again, this is exactly what happened with Nixon. And he was right – it was happening all over again.”
McKay captures that brilliantly, the actor says, because of his astute political sensibilities and empathy for the human condition. According to Rockwell, “Adam is incredibly smart and has strong opinions and he’s also very compassionate. It’s why he has such a strong emotional connection to this material. If you combine the political junkie with a dexterous comic mind you have a point of view that’s interesting and a great take on this story. The key to getting the audience to dive in is Adam’s ability to inject humor into pretty serious topics. It allows the audience to digest and process some fairly complicated and emotional material.”
To capture the tone of George W. Bush, Rockwell initially watched different impersonators from Will Ferrell, to Josh Brolin, Steve Bridges and Frank Caliendo. “There were some amazing interpretations,” he says. “Then I watched everything I could find of George W. because I wanted to find my own way into it – to find his innocence and to accentuate his charm. It’s always important to find the character rather than a caricature. In Adam’s style of filmmaking, poking fun or sending up, just doesn’t work. It has to be based in reality.”
In the research process, Rockwell developed a certain fondness for the former President. “It’s clear from Adam’s script that he was essentially being manipulated and by his second term, I think he got hip to that fact. It seemed like he started to fight back a little bit. In an Oprah interview I saw, he discussed dodging the war and the National Guard and his regrets regarding weapons of mass destruction and going into Iraq too soon or at all. I believe he’d become a completely different person by the end of his second term.”
Combining a strong script with a facility for allowing his principals the freedom to improvise, Bale believes that McKay’s VICE succeeds “well beyond anything I ever fathomed. It’s fascinating and not just from the point of view of the shadowy figure of Dick Cheney who came to acquire as much power as any American has ever had. It holds up a mirror to each and every one of us on what we might do if we had such power. It forces us to look at who we are as a person, as a family man, and as a nation as well.”
As for audiences, Bale hopes that it achieves the goal of opening up conversations, raising questions. “It’s entertainment first, but within that entertainment there is incredible poignancy, moments of devastation and moments of joy. For me it brought up as much feeling as I’ve ever had watching a movie.”
What Amy Adams finds wonderful about McKay’s film is that it “allows you to learn in a way you weren’t expecting. In the beginning it’s this beautiful story about a man coming into his own power as a father, as a husband and in his career. Then suddenly, you start to see the effects of that power and, as an audience, you’re hit with the consequences. It really moved me.” Like all the best stories about history, Adams observes that VICE is immediate and relevant. “I think it’s because we just keep repeating ourselves, don’t we? The goal is to change and evolve and start working together instead of polarizing one another. I don’t know what the audience’s conversations coming out from this film will be. I doubt that they will be easy. But I know they’ll be important.”
Observes Tyler Perry, “to be honest, I didn’t think I would have been interested in sitting through a movie about Dick Cheney, but the way Adam did it is so intriguing. It should be a part of every school’s social studies class, because it really helped me to understand what happened.” Perry is additionally concerned that even today, “rules and laws are being revised that we’re hardly even aware of. I’m hoping this film raises awareness that we need to pay strict attention to things that are going on in the Halls of Justice. Most people feel if they vote everything will be okay, but there are so many people in power who have a much more say than we realize.”
The audience for VICE, says Kleiner, “is everyone who cares about this country. Some may take exception to the presentation of politics but it is in no way a hatchet job or a polemic. It’s an entertainment that promotes and encourages understanding of where we are now, which most people will agree is uncertain, and demonstrates that it didn’t happen overnight.”
As with Bale and Adams, Gardner believes the movie will engender conversation. “Starting a conversation is what all good art does. What direction it takes is hard to predict. But wherever the conversation leads, it will be because Adam is a true humanist and really trusts audiences. He has a singular way of expressing himself and as with THE BIG SHORT, trusts the viewer to take this ride outside the bounds of traditional storytelling.”
McKay claims that unlike a traditional bio-pic, there are different levels in VICE. “One of the big ones is that, nowadays, there’s so much information. So much misinformation. So much partisan back and forth, that people are confused. As a result, I don’t think we know exactly where we’re at. Whatever your political affiliation, you must be wondering how did we end up where we are today?”
McKay is attempting to convey the historical timeline that led to this predicament. “There’s a reason our government is built with checks and balances,” he notes. “It’s because power is addictive. In America, we’ve gone from being a country that was about ambition and providing for your family, to one that has turned towards power and career. Career is not about anything else. It’s just about you. At some point, American took this turn where it became all about the individual. About winning. It became about your own life. Your own little backyard. And that’s where I think we went off the rails.”
In his final analysis, McKay claims, “For me personally, Vice is a tale of the selfishness of power and how we’ve lost our larger community and country. Even for the Cheney’s it ended kind of tragically. But the beauty of film is that you can interpret it however you want.”