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.