It was clear during the invasion of Iraq that it was US vice-president Dick Cheney who was making all the critical, and highly unsavoury, decisions.
Vice, the biopic of Cheney released next week, shows how he came to assume that power and use it, with terrible results.
The film starts with the arrest of the drunk-driving Yale dropout of the 1950s. It then quickly flashes to clips from the invasion of Iraq that Cheney—ably played by Christian Bale—did so much to progress.
Cheney’s wife Lynne—well-acted by Amy Adams—is shown throughout as the woman-behind-the-man. She gives him an ultimatum—clean up or I leave. The rest is history.
Cheney is shown as the master of opportunity. When Richard Nixon resigns following the Watergate controversy, Cheney—then heading oil company Halliburton—calls his former boss, Donald Rumsfeld.
He says now is the time for the only Republicans with clean hands to make the running. And for several years, make the running they do.
But it’s after 9/11 that Cheney makes his most critical moves. He had already told George W Bush that a condition of accepting the vice-president role would be control over appointments, economics and foreign affairs.
They were unprecedented powers for someone in such a position.
As the World Trade Centre collapses into dust, Bush is absent. So it’s Cheney who makes the key decisions. He lays out the strategy that informed the next seven years of White House rule—Homeland Security, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding and extraordinary rendition.
He is shown establishing his own power base, and taking up offices in all the major centres of influence in Washington, including the CIA and the Pentagon.
Critically, Cheney is also shown first investigating the Unitary Executive Theory.
This interpretation of the US constitution claims the president and the vice-president can do whatever they want during war or in defence of national security. Once in power, Cheney carries that it out.
Director Adam McKay, who made the Wall Street bombshell The Big Short, goes some way in exposing the cynicism of the big political players.
Early on in his political career Cheney asks his then boss Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?”
Rumsfeld answers with a cackle and walks off laughing.
At the same time, behind a closed door just feet away, Nixon and Henry Kissinger secretly discuss how to bypass Congress in order to bomb Cambodia. The bombing begins just two days later.
In his effort to portray Cheney’s damaging influence over US politics, however, McKay goes too far.
Clips of ordinary Americans portray them as too cynical or too uninterested to care—beholden to entertainment and fake news.
But this is a minor criticism of what is a powerful film about how one individual can come to assume huge political power.