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Adam R. Holz

Movie Review

The vice presidency has rarely been an important position in American politics. Oh, it’s certainly a high-profile one. But it’s also a largely ceremonial role, with its occupants generally chosen to shore up the broadest possible appeal to the electorate. It’s a complimentary position, but rarely one that really matters.

Until Dick Cheney.

Dick Cheney—at least, the one we meet in Adam McKay’s wickedly sharp satire of him in Vice—never aspired to this unloved position. But when George W. Bush asked, almost begged the man to be his running mate, Cheney (again, according to this dramatization) saw an opportunity: for the vice president to become the real power behind the proverbial throne.

Cheney, ever the master of the political long game, took that opportunity. Operating quietly in the shadow of W., Cheney—along with longtime mentor and associate Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense—pulled the strings of American foreign policy.

And then 9/11 happened.

As other politicians—perhaps most of them—floundered in emotional disorientation and fear, Cheney once again saw an opportunity. An opportunity to invade Iraq that would pay rich dividends for the company that Cheney had once presided over, Halliburton.

Vice—a title that does triple duty as it refers to Cheney’s position, the strength of his grip on power and (the film asserts) his amoral character—tells Dick Cheney’s unlikely story, one in which we see him rise from being a drunk college dropout to, in time, becoming the most powerful vice president America has ever known.

Positive Elements

There’s little in this depiction of Dick Cheney that one might characterize as positive. Perhaps the closest it comes is in a scene near the end of the film, where Cheney turns toward the camera, and, speaking directly to us, says, “I will not apologize for keeping your family safe. And I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done to keep your loved ones safe at night.” That moment suggests that Cheney was perhaps motivated by something higher than raw power and unbridled greed. But it’s virtually the only moment in the film that gives him any such credit.

That said, Cheney and his wife, Lynne, seem to share a genuine commitment to each other and their two daughters, Liz and Mary. For instance, early on it’s implied that Lynne’s father murdered her mother, a suspicion that was never investigated. At the woman’s funeral, Lynne’s dad tries to talk to the Cheney’s two daughters. Cheney takes the older man aside and quietly says, “Don’t ever go near my daughters or my wife again.”

The film depicts Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as being voices of reason and restraint in the days after 9/11 (albeit to little avail).

Spiritual Elements

We hear passing references to Islamic extremists, as well as the Arabic phrase, “Allahu Akbar” (roughly translated as “Allah is greatest”).

In a speech, Donald Rumsfeld says, “God bless you all, and God bless this great nation.” A clip from Ronald Reagan echoes those words. We hear a portion of Psalm 23 at Cheney’s mother-in-law’s funeral. Someone cynically says, “God save us.”

Sexual Content

Mary Cheney is gay and comes out—with much fear and trembling—to her parents as a young adult. Perhaps surprisingly, Dick is initially more accepting and affirming of her than Lynne is. He immediately responds, “It doesn’t matter, sweetheart. We love you no matter what.” As the film progresses, we see Mary and her partner present at Cheney family gatherings.

When Mary’s sister, Liz, runs for office in Wyoming, Mary’s sexual orientation becomes an issue. Liz refuses to endorse gay marriage, affirming instead traditional marriage. It’s a stance she feels is politically expedient—one that she only takes with, it’s implied—the blessing of her father. That moment devastates Mary. The film suggests that Cheney is willing to sacrifice even his own daughter if it means helping his other daughter attain political power.

Elsewhere, we hear at least four crude references to the male anatomy, a couple of which also involve slang allusions to masturbation. Some guys are shown shirtless. In a stump speech for her husband, Lynne Cheney says that Republican women wear their bras instead of burning them. A dream sequence shows Lynne and Dick kissing passionately in bed. Rumsfeld jokes sarcastically about someone “not getting laid.”

Violent Content

Most of the brief images of violence we see have to do with terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing war with Iraq. We see the horror surrounding the World Trade Center. We see montages of American troops engaging with enemy combatants in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We see Iraqis being waterboarded and quivering, naked, on chains as American attack dogs menace them. (Nudity is avoided in the latter pictures.)

The end of the film spells out in statistical detail the human cost of the decisions that (the film alleges) Cheney was responsible for: 4,550 American servicemen and women died in the two conflicts and 32,325 Americans were wounded, in addition to the 600,000 Iraqis killed and another 150,000 deaths related to ISIS (the rise of which is, the film suggests, primarily due to Cheney’s policies).

During the Nixon era, we see Donald Rumsfeld practically salivating over the prospect of military strikes during the Vietnam War. Rumsfeld, perhaps even more than Cheney, is depicted as a soulless warmonger.

Dick Cheney’s accidental shooting of a man during a hunting trip (we see the gun go off, but not the victim himself) is played practically as a joke here. Another running gag: Whenever Cheney sees a political opportunity, we see intercut footage of large predators, like lions, attacking and devouring their prey.

Cheney was once a lineman for a Wyoming electrical company, and we see scenes from that part of his life. We see him get into a drunken brawl, along with his bruised face in the aftermath. A man falls from a pole and suffers a horrifically broken leg (bent at a sickening, unnatural angle). The company’s heartless foreman tells his coworkers to take the fall victim into town, drop him off there and give him a bit of cash; Cheney looks on without a single expression of empathy. It’s a scene that suggests that Cheney is, even early on, emotionally heartless.

[Spoiler Warning] And speaking of being heartless, Cheney is literally shown that way, too. Cheney has multiple heart attacks throughout the movie. Near the end, his heart is failing when he receives a (graphically filmed) transplant from a young man who’s been hit by a car. After Cheney’s blackened, scabrous ticker is plopped onto a stainless steel tray, the camera looks at it for a moment before swinging back up above Cheney’s body, showing his heartless chest cavity. During that scene, we get a montage of all the choices that Cheney has made that have led to death and destruction for others.

A distraught Mary Cheney is involved in a car accident after breaking up with her girlfriend.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 20 f-words (including one paired with “mother”), and about eight s-words. God’s name is taken in vain about a dozen times, half of those misuses paired with “d–.” Jesus’ name is abused three times. Profanities used three or four times each include “d–n,” “h—,” “a–” and “b–ch.” One use each of “p-ss” and “a–hole.” Someone mentions “hippies flipping off Nixon.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

As a young man, Dick Cheney is a directionless drunk. Likewise, when we first meet young George W. Bush, he, too, is very drunk at a formal White House event for his father, who is the president at that time.

A number of scenes depict social drinking at various government events. Many characters are shown smoking throughout the film as well.

Cheney is shown taking prescription meds, apparently for his chronic heart condition.

Other Negative Elements

Vice details Cheney’s unlikely ascent to power in the Republican Party in the late 1960s after his wife issues an ultimatum: “Either you stand up straight … and you have the courage to become someone, or I am gone.” Cheney, to his credit, takes that challenge seriously, soon meeting and working as an intern for then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld. And for the next four decades, Cheney and Rumsfeld—sometimes in power, sometimes not—scheme and plot and move behind the scenes, always jockeying for power and position.

Cheney isn’t interested in the vice-presidential slot at first. Then he meets George W. Bush, who’s depicted as a craven, emotionally stunted man child longing for his father’s approval. (Of all the caricatures in the film, the one of George W. Bush is arguably the most cartoonish.) Cheney sees an opportunity to grab power behind the scenes, using and manipulating W. as he pleases.


A study in subtlety Vice is not. Whereas some biopics seek to frame their subjects in almost saintly terms—the new movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex comes to mind—others break out the carving knives with glee.

Vice lands in the latter category. Director Adam McKay approached this story like a prosecuting attorney. This grim satire paints a scathing, vulgar portrait of its titular subject as a man whose pursuit of power may have cost nearly a million people their lives.

No, there’s nothing subtle about Vice, save, perhaps, actor Christian Bale’s remarkably nuanced embodiment of Dick Cheney’s mannerisms and speaking patterns—a portrayal that will likely make him an awards-season favorite.

Viewers who share Adam McKay’s political perspective will likely cheer this film’s savage assessment of Cheney. Those on the other side of the political divide will likely find it distasteful at the very least. And those who stand somewhere between those two political poles may simply find more fodder for cynicism here, both about the state of American politics and the entertainment world’s depiction of it.

Vice is not a movie that builds a metaphorical bridge over our culture’s ideologically troubled waters. Instead, pours gasoline on it and lobs a match on, smiling all the while.

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Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.