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Opening Up the Oscars: ‘Vice’

Courtesy Flickr.


It was not until the moment in the film that Liz Cheney announced her shift of position on same-sex marriage that “Vice” finally struck me as an intimate record of a personal transformation.

“Vice,” a film by director Adam McKay, whose works include “The Big Short” and “Anchorman,” is a seemingly comedic take on one of the most famous (or infamous) American politicians, Dick Cheney. Under Cheney and President Bush, the world saw a modern reinterpretation of “Americanism,” which is believed by many people as an ever-increasing radical hegemonism. After the fall of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991, the U.S. stood on the world stage as the single most powerful country. At the same time, humanity was undergoing horrifying and profound changes. Citizens under the daily monitoring of Stasi in Berlin, peasants from the slums in Mumbai and professors from the prison in Pyongyang all sought to imagine a place where their peril and suffering were in a void. That place was America.

So when the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, it enraged the population to a degree that had not been seen since Pearl Harbor. It was not only the loss of lives but also the symbolic value of such an attack, which the “last bastion” of the free world was no longer safe. “Vice” does a brilliant job of retelling this unforgettable history with a condensed time frame and subtle characterization. Immediately as Cheney (Christian Bale) entered the war room, a sense of power imbalance was obvious to the audience like a snappy popcorn. The film does not shy away from solidifying the intimidating image of Cheney in this opening scene. When Don Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) asked for permission to shoot down any flying aircraft — a decision which could be only made by the president — Cheney gave the authorization without hesitation. This single sequence was a subtle example of his entire political endeavor: to capture, as stated in the film, “the true power of the American presidency.”

Similar to “The Big Short,” “Vice” juxtaposes an absurd tone with a story of great seriousness. But “Vice” greatly improved this formula with an untraditional narrative structure, which ventured out of the map of three acts. The film can be divided into two parts: Cheney before the vice presidency and after the vice presidency, each with its own three act structure. (There was even a fake credit rolling in the middle of the film, joking that Cheney retired happily ever after). The inciting incident of the first part is a bar fight, and the inciting incident of the second part is a phone call from then-candidate Bush. Each has a beginning, middle and end. This is by no means a revolutionary method, but it is still a rather clever maneuver of scriptwriting, and Director McKay also wrote the screenplay.

Like all biographical films, “Vice” is character-driven, which means characters “act” instead of “react.” A more comprehensible explanation of this concept would be the characters in the film grow or learn something new about themselves and their environment through their actions. “Vice” did not try to break this pattern — instead, it executes this recipe masterfully. Dick Cheney grew from a college dropout working as an electrician to a promising D.C. player, and then finally became one of the most potent American politicians. Cheney’s transformation, driven by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), Rumsfeld’s teaching and Cheney’s own ability to exploit the vice presidency, was palpable in the film. However, there were other drives, hidden under the context of the film, that are extremely interesting for their subtlety.

In one key scene, Cheney’s daughter Liz runs for Senate and realizes that her campaign is floundering because of her unclear views on same-sex marriage. Cheney had always been protective of his other, openly gay daughter, Mary. He was willing to give up anything to protect her. However, when Liz’s political life was in danger, because of the very issue of same-sex marriage, Cheney made a choice. He sacrificed Mary’s rights for Liz’s career. That choice reflected the dilemma of a father, who tried to protect both of his children.

When Cheney asked Rumsfeld about what they should believe, Cheney only receives a wave of laughter for his “naive” question. It is all too tempting to think Dick starts to lose faith in the system. But what was in his mind when he expressed that doubt? Was his conscience failing to cope with the truth of politics? Or was he merely trying to seek his mentor’s weakness? Or was that when he finally solidified his beliefs? Maybe that day Cheney realized he could command the power of the American presidency by doing anything he could to bolster his own status, no matter the cost.

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