Vice: Adam McKay’s Anatomy of Power–Cheney Style

The new film of Oscar winning writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) is the audacious satire, Vice, a behind the-scenes look at Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise from Congressional intern to the most powerful man in the country.



























Inhabiting the role of the secretive title character, who changed the world in ways few leaders have over the past fifty years, is Oscar winner Christian Bale (The Fighter).

The all-star cast includes Oscar nominee Steve Carell as the affable yet steely Donald Rumsfeld, Oscar nominee Amy Adams as Cheney’s ambitious wife, and Oscar winner Sam Rockwell as the malleable George W. Bush.

With his entertaining and incisive Oscar-winning The Big Short, writer-director Adam McKay exposed the Wall Street chicanery that led to the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression.

In VICE, McKay aims at another true story of one of the most elusive and secretive minds in modern American political history, Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney, played by Bale in another transformational performance.

Spanning a half-century, Cheney’s (Christian Bale) complex journey from rural Wyoming electrical worker to de facto President of the US is a darkly comic and often unsettling inside look at the use and misuse of institutional power.

The dichotomy between Cheney, the dedicated family man and political puppet master, is related with intimacy, wit and daring. Guided by his formidable and unfailingly loyal wife, Lynne (Amy Adams) and mentored by the brusque and blustery Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Cheney insinuated himself into the Washington D.C. fabric beginning with the Nixon administration, becoming White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, and after five terms in Congress, Secretary of Defense for George H.W. Bush.

In 2000, he left his position as C.E.O. of Halliburton to run as Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) with the implicit understanding that he would exercise unchecked control, sort of a co-president.

Cheney’s cunning and furtive political maneuvering have altered the American political landscape in ways that will continue to reverberate for decades to come. But it is clear there is more than one Dick Cheney, a man whose reputation in the public Spector belies his private life and obvious devotion to his family.

Narrative Structure:

Vice is narrated by Kurt, a fictitious veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. The film opens with Cheney and other White House officials and staff responding to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

1963: Wyoming

The film then flashes back to Wyoming in 1963, where Cheney finds work as a lineman after his alcoholism led him to drop out of Yale University. After Cheney is stopped by a traffic cop for driving while intoxicated, his wife Lynne Cheney convinces him to clean up his life.

1969: White House Intern

The film flashes forward to 1969 when Cheney finds work as a White House intern during the Nixon Administration. Working under Nixon’s economic adviser, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney becomes a savvy political operative as he juggles commitments to his wife and their daughters, Liz and Mary. Cheney overhears Henry Kissinger discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with President Richard Nixon, revealing the true power of the executive branch to Cheney. Rumsfeld’s abrasive attitude leads to him and Cheney being distanced from Nixon, which works in both men’s favor; after Nixon’s resignation, Cheney rises to the position of White House Chief of Staff for President Gerald Ford while Rumsfeld becomes Secretary of Defense. The media later dubs the sudden shake-up in the cabinet as the Halloween Massacre. During his tenure, a young Antonin Scalia introduces Cheney to the unitary executive theory.


Like many Americans, McKay had little direct knowledge of the elusive, seemingly unknowable Dick Cheney, who served as a virtual co-president to George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009, and in so doing, changed American history if not forever, then certainly for decades to come. “I didn’t know much about Dick Cheney, but as I started reading about him, I became fascinated with him, what drove him, what his beliefs were. I kept reading more and more, and was astounded by the shocking method through which Cheney gained power and how much he has shaped the United States’ current place in the world.”

McKay also read Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Robert Moses titled The Power Broker, another insightful look about one man’s rise to power and the difficult task of holding onto it. “After that, I started reading everything to do with power,” says McKay, “going all the way back to Shakespeare and it was then that the idea for the script began to take shape.”

Cheney was an avid fly-fisherman, a sport that requires patience, a virtue that served him well in his methodical climb up the ladder – both in politics and business, McKay contends. However, none of that would have mattered without the encouragement and ambitiousness of his wife, the former Lynne Vincent, his high school sweetheart. After Cheney flunked out of Yale and was hit with a couple of DUIs, his wife helped turn him around. “Without a doubt, it was Lynne’s ambitious nature that transformed Dick Cheney,” states McKay. “Those who knew her back then said that whoever she would have married would have gone a long way. Otherwise, Dick might have ended up living a quiet life in Wyoming like his siblings.” Cheney became Lynne’s conduit to power, according to McKay. “She had the brains and ambition but realized that, being a woman, certain doors were closed to her. While she might not be able to pull the levers of power herself, she knew how to get someone to pull those levers for her.”

The more he delved into Cheney’s political career, the more he appreciated how complex and far-reaching an influence he has had on contemporary American politics. McKay’s mission, he claims, was to write a script that transcended political beliefs and addressed universal issues. “This was a giant chapter in U.S. political history that I don’t feel has ever been fully examined on screen. A vital piece in the puzzle on how we arrived at this moment in time where political consensus is achieved through advertising, manipulation and misinformation. And Dick Cheney was the man at the center of it.”

After intensive research and numerous first-person interviews, McKay was able to narrow his focus and begin writing the script, according to producer Kevin Messick, who has worked alongside him on several films and, most recently, the HBO miniseries SUCCESSION, another exploration of power manipulation. “Of course, in this case, narrowing the story meant starting in Wyoming in the 1950s and going through to the early years of the 21st century.”

In his comedic films and his Oscar-winning screenplay for THE BIG SHORT, McKay layered the time-shifting narrative with unorthodox elements including an unconventional narrator, breaking the fourth wall, comedic surreal moments, documentary footage, and even a pillow-talk conversation between Lynne and Dick Cheney written in iambic pentameter. “Part of Adam’s genius is his freestyle, almost jazz-like approach,” says Messick. “In so doing, he’s created a hybrid genre that audiences respond to, but can’t quite tag. Films like THE BIG SHORT and VICE are not strictly drama nor strictly comedy. But they use elements of both. His unique style is almost part of his DNA.”

For Plan B producers, two-time Oscar winners Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (MOONLIGHT, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE), who had worked with McKay on THE BIG SHORT, the response to McKay’s script was immediate and wholehearted. “It’s a profoundly ambitious story,” says Gardner, “more an epic than a bio-pic. It unpacks forty years of American politics and how, in the present day, we have arrived at where we are. But it’s also about American culture and how our society has changed over time.”

“For me, it was combination of elements,” says producer Kleiner. “As with THE BIG SHORT, Adam was experimenting with form. He is reaching for a way to tell complicated stories. This was another high wire act of a script that also delivered on an emotional level. His depiction of history gave us an understanding at how we arrived in our current moment, offering an articulated connection between the past, the present and perhaps even the future.”

Both Gardner and Kleiner were struck by McKay’s use of an unconventional narrator (portrayed in the film by Jesse Plemons of THE POST and FARGO). Gardner sees him as a metaphorical character, an audience surrogate who takes on various guises throughout the film. “Adam found a way to represent the everyman in this story, someone who feels the way most of us do,” she says. “And he did it with humor and specificity, allowing the character to hold the emotional center of the film.” For Kleiner, the narrator speaks to McKay’s egalitarian concerns. “His interests lie in how people are affected by these enormous changes,” he says. “It made sense to access this story through a person who is not rooted in politics but in everyday American life. It’s a clever device that weaves in and out of the story and has emotional affect.”

McKay was equally as interested in exploring the Cheney family as he was in Cheney’s political rise, says Kleiner. “Cheney self-identifies as a family man. He was driven by his wife Lynne, with whom he had a common bond. They both shared ideas with many of the characters in the film, a desire to make sure their family is secure, though perhaps the security sometimes comes at the expense of others who weren’t family. THE GODFATHER dealt with that same subject. It’s hard to reconcile a devoted family man with some of the events that happened on his watch and that’s a big part of Adam’s dramatic arc.” The Cheney family story not only traces his roots as a politician, but also brings a dimensionality and humanity to the story, claims Gardner. “Family was a major part of Dick Cheney’s life and their role in the film provides the audience (and the actors) a way to see these characters from the inside out.”