The other patrons were not amused.
“Shut the f--- up,” one yelled. (We probably had that coming.) “Did you just come here to ruin the movie for us?” another asked. (For the record: Conservatives enjoy going to the movies, too!) “I’ve got two words for you: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, woo,” another said as she was filing out of the theater during the credits. (That this was actually more than two words went unmentioned at the time — no need to embarrass her — but was noted by those of us who gathered for drinks and dinner after.)
To be totally honest, I understand the consternation of the rest of the audience. After all, this is a supposedly damning portrait of a much-reviled conservative politician. Georgetown should be a safe space for progressives looking to take in a bit of GOP-bashing fun. How could it be possible for the knuckle-draggers in the back row to be enjoying themselves quite this much?
To be sure: Director Adam McKay uses every cinematic trick in the book to make Cheney (Christian Bale) look evil. That applause-earning speech at the end of the film is shot from a low angle, Cheney’s face darkly lit as he hunches down to stare at us. At one point, Cheney’s heart is removed during a transplant and he is shown making a callous decision that will impact the lives of one of his children. He is depicted as amoral, craving nothing but power — literally heartless.
His compatriots are depicted alternately as stooges and accomplices in the subversion of American ideals. George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) is a dunce whom Cheney tricks into granting the vice president almost limitless powers. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) doesn’t care about the human cost of bombing Cambodian villages; he simply covets the power such campaigns represent. Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) is alternately a conniving Lady Macbeth and an incompetent mother who can’t master Kraft Mac & Cheese.
That this might cause some consternation among Cheney’s inner circle and those with firsthand knowledge of the Bush White House is understandable. It’s hard to blame Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for being perturbed by the portrayal of her family. As Matt Latimer, who worked in George W. Bush’s White House as a speechwriter, noted in an essay for Politico, the movie is a farcical fiction. “Vice” erases major players such as Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) almost entirely. More troublingly, it twists Rumsfeld’s banishment to Brussels by Nixon’s inner circle as little more than a failed power play; in truth, as Latimer puts it, “the Nixon people didn’t like Rumsfeld because he wasn’t going to break the law for them.”
And yet. If you’re not already inclined to hate Dick Cheney — and I can assure you, there are dozens of us … dozens! — nothing in the movie will persuade you that he’s the Devil. As I noted in my review of the picture, he comes off as an up-by-the-bootstraps type, a hard-drinking ne’er-do-well who, thanks to the love of a good woman, was able to pull his life together. He’s a loving, protective father, one who neither wants to submit his lesbian daughter to the scrutiny she would undergo as first daughter nor is willing to come out against gay marriage in order to win the job of VP.
But he’s also shown as the protector of America, the guy signing off on extraordinary renditions in order to get terrorists off the streets. He’s the one who wants to hear about all the terrorist plots threatening his people, and not just the handpicked intel that the intelligence services deem worthy of his attention. Like any good father, he just wants to make sure his children are safe.
That this sort of guy appeals to conservatives makes a fair amount of sense if you’ve read Jonathan Haidt. As Haidt has noted in his work on moral foundations theory, conservatives respond more favorably to “loyalty” and “authority” (as well as “sanctity”) than liberals, who prize “care” and “fairness.” Cheney is like a walking, talking representation of loyalty and authority.
How, then, are conservatives supposed to react when Cheney turns to the cameras and snarls the following directly to audiences?
The world is as you find it. And you gotta deal with that reality. And there are monsters in this world. We saw 3,000 innocent people burned to death, by those monsters. And yet, you object, when I refuse to kiss those monsters on the cheek and say, “pretty please.” You answer me this, What terrorist attack would you let go forward so you wouldn’t seem like a mean and nasty fella? I will not apologize for keeping your families safe. And I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done, so your loved ones can sleep peacefully at night.
The artistic intent here is for this to come off as deranged. For a not-insignificant number of us, however, it’s little more than common sense. Can you blame us for cheering?
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