“See that door?” Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell, asks Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney early on in “Vice,” Adam McKay’s freewheeling, comic-tragic collage-biopic. “Because of the discussion Nixon and Kissinger are having behind that door five feet away from us, in a couple of days, 10,000 miles away, a rain of 750-pound bombs dropped from B-52s 20,000 feet will hit villages and towns all around Cambodia. Thousands will die. The world will change, for better or worse.”
After a beat, Rumsfeld jovially adds, “That is the kind of power that exists in this squat little ugly building.”
“Vice” is a mess, filled with narrative curlicues and digressions into bizarre sketch comedy to temper its more earnest moments and deploying fourth-wall-breaking tactics to explain supposedly heady hypotheses like “the theory of the unitary executive” (don’t ask). But nowhere is the film more powerful than in those scenes in which it establishes the connection between the corridors of the nation’s capital and the combat being waged across the ocean. “Vice” takes place largely in offices, conference rooms and hallways across Washington — and yet, in its own way, it is no less a war movie than “Platoon.”
Once upon a time, the war film was one of Hollywood’s most cherished and prolific genres. Bernard F. Dick’s survey “The Star-Spangled Screen” cites more than 60 American productions about World War II made between 1938 and 1941 alone — before the United States even entered the conflict. After Pearl Harbor, the number rose considerably. Rousing tales of men fighting on the front lines assured the nation that its cause was just, its soldiers brave and war — while brutal — was usually necessary.
With the Vietnam War, the image of the soldier became much more complicated, a shift that produced some of the most enduring masterpieces of American cinema. In real life and in pop culture, Americans were just as likely to be seen as foreign invaders laying waste to villages as they were to be seen as valiant and honorable. In efforts from “The Deer Hunter” to “Full Metal Jacket” made in the years following the war, the soldiers were often psychologically troubled, uncertain of their mission and conflicted about their duties.
Today, if you want to see fighting at the movies, you usually get it via superheroes or space battles. Even with U.S. troops still deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq in what’s become known as the “forever war,” a different kind of war movie has gained prominence — one in which the main event occurs far away from the actual battleground.
Take Steven Spielberg, who in 1998 made one of the most garlanded World War II films of all time with “Saving Private Ryan.” His depictions of violence are now much shorter, usually foregrounding the real action to come in the backroom. “Lincoln” opens with a very brief scene of bombs exploding and soldiers bayoneting one another, but the bulk of the film occurs in the White House, in Congress and in the various inns and bars where the president and his underlings seek to sway the opinions of lame-duck congressmen. The occasional grisly images serve to flesh out Lincoln’s sense of torment as he delays a peace treaty to allow a vote on the 13th Amendment. “Bridge of Spies” had one jarring, bravura sequence of a U-2 plane being shot out of the sky amid the otherwise dense atmosphere of slow-burning Cold War paranoia and somber negotiations.
The combat flick isn’t totally dead. But such films are now seen as political hot potatoes that might polarize audiences, not surefire crowd-pleasers. The audience response to these movies — anchored in how the imagery might be interpreted, used, categorized — suggests that today, we’re more instinctively suspicious of how war is depicted and to what ends. Despite being a massive box-office hit, “American Sniper” was seen by some on the left as jingoistic and simplistic. Critics of Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” were beset by right-wing pundits and commentators, savaging them for disrespecting the troops. Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” was perceived as an attempt to influence the 2016 election.
The recent flowering of backroom war films may also spring from a growing disconnect between civilians and the military. Our fighting is increasingly done by a warrior caste of professional soldiers, and the public often perceives the events of the battleground as distant abstractions — an attitude political leaders themselves are usually happy to encourage. Filmmakers seem to have lost confidence in their ability to navigate anything resembling a real battlefield. On the other hand, process stories about bureaucracy, image management and media manipulation fall right in Hollywood’s wheelhouse. Last year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was the exceptional hit that proved the rule. But it was flanked by two other titles that dealt with the British retreat only at arm’s length. Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” followed Winston Churchill’s political maneuvers after the retreat; Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest” centered on British efforts to create promotional films during it.
As if to underline the chasm between the corridors of power and the theaters of combat, “Vice” presents a heartbreaking little moment. As George W. Bush announces the invasion of Iraq, McKay pans down to show that, under his desk, the president’s leg is shaking nervously. We then cut to a home in Iraq, where a family lies huddled under a table as bombs rain around them. A father desperately hugs his daughter, trying to keep her safe. His leg is also shaking. But for him, the danger is much more urgent.
War was once considered something that united a nation, domestically and abroad. Today, we see how it is decided not on the battleground where real men and women bleed and die, but in offices across the ocean where politicians and others scheme, argue, negotiate and cajole. They do so in safety and comfort, largely free from consequences — except, of course, that someone may someday make a movie about them.