Humanizing Dick Cheney

In the biopic Vice, Adam McKay explores the dichotomy between the vice president’s mild, private personality and dark, public persona.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in 'Vice'
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice  (Annapurna Pictures)

This article contains mild spoilers for Vice.

The central conundrum of Dick Cheney’s political and historical identity is the gulf between the malevolence of his public persona (snarling, dark, relentless) and the mildness of his private personality (wry, relaxed, understated). It’s a dichotomy that Adam McKay tackles head-on in Vice, his tragicomedy of a biopic about the 46th vice president of the United States.

The darkness is all there in the film: cinema verité footage of torture and Abu Ghraib and the aerial bombardment of Baghdad; the secret energy task force; the bald assertion of executive power and a creed of realpolitik so hardheaded as to be heartless—all served up in a tone that veers from wild satire to dead-serious drama.

But Cheney’s softer side is on full display, too (as when he coaches his non-cook wife, Lynne, on how to make boxed macaroni and cheese). And McKay, who both wrote the screenplay and directed the film, never lets viewers forget for a moment that his protagonist has a loving family and a beating heart—even if by the end of the story (after transplant surgery) that heart is no longer his own.

I covered the Cheneys—Dick, Lynne, and their daughters, Liz and Mary—during the second Bush administration for The New York Times, and, 12 years ago, wrote a profile of the vice president for Vanity Fair. Then as now, the gap between his Darth Vader image and the Ward Cleaver vibe he gives off in person is hard to reconcile, but McKay does his damnedest. What’s more, he plays off the sympathetic, even gentle, private man to compel attention to what he clearly views as Cheney’s monstrous public acts. The father who says just the right thing when his daughter comes out as gay is also the vice president who may or may not have consulted his boss before issuing orders to shoot down one of the hijacked planes on 9/11.

“The more I read about him as a father,” McKay told me recently in his West Hollywood office, “and the fact that he does the shopping and the cooking—like, he really does do the shopping and the cooking—and how close and tender he is with his daughters and the fact that he’s still crazy about his wife … That’s what kind of drew me into this, because I really started looking at it as a uniquely American story. A story of a guy who had a bumpy beginning, wanted to make his way, wanted to make his wife proud, wanted to climb the ladder.”

The movie covers Cheney’s rise from his troubled days as a high-voltage power lineman when he’d flamed out of Yale, waking up surrounded by chunks of vomit after a drunken night, to his career breakout as the youngest White House chief of staff in history (for Jerry Ford), to his ultimate perch as the second (or was it the first?) most powerful man in the world. Beside him through it all—kicking his ass when he needs it, holding his hand when he earns it—is his ferociously smart and ambitious high-school sweetheart turned wife, without whom one senses, in the film as in real life, he might never have made it out of Casper, Wyoming, at all.

Amy Adams (left) as Lynne Cheney and Christian Bale (right) as Dick Cheney in Vice (Annapurna Pictures)

To watch Christian Bale in yet another one of his uncanny, shape-shifting performances in the title role is to forget that you are not watching Cheney himself. The set jaw, the monosyllabic utterances, the cocked head, the crooked smile—all reflect a characterization that is neither a stand-up comic’s impression nor an actor’s impersonation but somehow the very personification of Cheney, even if the transformation took so much prosthetic makeup that, McKay joked at a recent advance screening, the actor had to be placed in a medically induced coma to apply it. (By contrast, Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush border on caricature.)

In this film, however dark his deeds, Cheney is never less than human and always three-dimensional. Early on, McKay says, he saw the love story of Dick and Lynne as the emotional hook of the film, and he sees their “big scene” in the moment that Cheney, newly arrived as a young aide to Rumsfeld in a tiny office in the Nixon White House, calls Lynne and asks her to guess where he is. He has come a long way from his youthful flameout. Perhaps just as important is the pivotal scene in which the Cheneys’ younger daughter, Mary, jilted by a high-school girlfriend, tells them she is gay. Lynne is upset and emotional, worried about the hard life Mary will face; Dick just hugs her and tells her he loves her and wants her to be happy. (McKay says the dialogue is drawn almost word for word from Mary’s memoir. But the film also undercuts this paternal sensitivity in a scene set years later, when Liz is running an unsuccessful primary campaign for the Senate from Wyoming in 2013 and is goaded by her GOP rival into denouncing gay marriage—and by extension betraying her sister—with her father’s nodded assent. It’s an invented moment that McKay concedes is based only on informed supposition.)

Reporters who covered Cheney as George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary in the late 1980s used to tell me that he reminded them of their fathers: mid-century American men who never complained and never explained, just did their jobs, and McKay and Bale capture this quality in spades. By the same token, Amy Adams, who plays Lynne Cheney from her 20s to her 70s, told the audience at the screening I attended that her character reminded her of her own grandmother, in her determination to get out of her stultifying hometown and make something of herself. Unlike her husband, whose default attitude on many subjects has always seemed to be live-and-let-live, Lynne, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities with a Ph.D. in British literature, has long been a fierce culture warrior, defending the classical canon and denouncing political correctness.

Asked at the screening how the film affected her view of the Cheney family and the Cheney legacy, Adams gave a complex answer. “As an actor,” she said, “I always feel it’s settled. I can’t judge my character. So I had to let go of whether I agree with her opinions or not. I had to let go of it all. And so I have a different understanding of what may have motivated her … It doesn’t change how I feel about them. It changes the way that I approach them. But I get very defensive of Lynne and I don’t think that’s a popular view, so it’s hard to say.”

I know enough about the Cheneys to suspect that they’ll loathe this film, if they so much as watch it at all. But if they’re honest, they’d have to admit that it gives them their due as fully rounded people, pursuing the right course as they see it, objections be damned. It is, as McKay put it at the screening, “all very complicated and uncomfortable and I felt by the end that’s exactly what it should be.” McKay’s exploration of the Cheneys’ private, softer side—their easy banter at the family dinner table, for example—in no way minimizes the darkness, even ruthlessness, of the vice president’s public deeds. It just makes the whole picture harder to square, which may be the goal.

In our conversation, McKay, who confesses that he sometimes finds himself tearing up at the film’s conclusion, elaborated on the point. “Now, whenever I see him, I feel sad,” he said. “I feel like he gave it away. I feel like he had this special thing. He had this family. He had moments of serving the country. He could have really called himself a public servant for a long time. And now you just see him and he just seems semi-empty, and he’s defending his legacy … It made me very sad for him. It made me very sad for our country, and obviously it made me sad for the fallout of what was done. And I never expected that.”

Indeed, the film can’t help but make one wish that Cheney had never been vice president at all. About halfway through, there is a fake end-credits sequence that imagines Cheney’s public career had stopped after his service as the first George Bush’s defense secretary, when he was one of the restrained architects of the Gulf War, and, the faux sequence suggests, could content himself with breeding Labrador retrievers in retirement. But happy endings are only for Hollywood, and as the latest news from Afghanistan shows, the Dick Cheney Story, in all its dark and human complexity, remains unfinished.