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Vice is in the running for Best Picture. But how good is its history, really?

Our roundtable discusses the historical veracity and Oscar potential for Adam McKay’s movie about Dick Cheney and the modern GOP.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whichever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, we talk about Vice, Adam McKay’s movie about Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale) and the rise of the modern GOP. It’s been one of the most talked-about movies in the Best Picture race, and it garnered eight Oscar nominations overall, which include one for Bale, one for Amy Adams (playing Lynne Cheney), one for Sam Rockwell (playing George W. Bush), and two for McKay (for directing and writing). Joining the conversation are Alissa Wilkinson, Vox’s film critic; Jennifer Williams, senior foreign editor; and Zack Beauchamp, senior politics and policy correspondent. Jenn and Zack also co-host Vox’s international affairs podcast Worldly.

Is Vice accurate? Or is it a mess?

Alissa Wilkinson: Vice is one of the more divisive films in the running at this year’s Oscars. Some critics loved it; others hated it. (I had an argument over it with Vox’s own Todd VanDerWerff.) Adam McKay’s caustic portrait of Dick Cheney and the rise of modern Republicanism had a lot of potential, but in my view, it squanders that potential with muddled metaphors, a strange lack of insight, and a misguided fixation on castigating its audience. But clearly the Academy found it good enough to nominate it for Best Picture, and plenty of critics found it worth thinking about.

Still, I found myself wondering about Vice’s accuracy in portraying its figures. The actors’ makeup is so precise that I often forgot I wasn’t watching, say, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), or George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), or Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), or any of the other famous figures that pop up throughout; the film’s nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling is well-deserved. But is its story precise? Or does it misrepresent things?

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Which is why I wanted to talk to you both. First, what did you think of the film when you saw it? And do you have any sense of what may have been so attractive about it in the eyes of the Academy?

Zack Beauchamp: I’m glad we’re doing this, since Jenn and I have been debating Vice for a while now in the office, so we might as well go public with it.

Vice is not a super-accurate movie. It’s Adam McKay’s interpretation of Dick Cheney’s history, based on his own reading of the (scant) biographical material on the former vice president. To my mind, the biggest overall error is painting Cheney as largely non-ideological and more concerned with power than anything else. James Mann, one of the most knowledgeable writers out there on the subject of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, called the famous scene where Cheney asks Rumsfeld what we believe — and Cheney responds just by laughing — “a disastrous misreading of the former vice president.”

I also think the film overstates the degree to which Cheney was George W. Bush’s puppet master during the latter’s presidency, pretty severely.

But at the same time, I think Vice is an essentially good movie! That’s not just because I found it more entertaining than Alissa seems to have, though I definitely did. It’s also because the movie gets a big thing right: the connection between the Bush and Trump administrations. A lot of people like to pretend that Donald Trump came out of nowhere, or that he was an aberration in an otherwise healthy GOP. Vice helps situate Trump in a longer process of moral and intellectual corruption inside the Republican Party, one that produced egregious abuses in the last GOP administration. Vice goes to great lengths to show just how bad things had gotten before the current administration, a valuable corrective to a presentist historical narrative that whitewashes things like torture and the Iraq War.

Jenn Williams: I also found the movie wildly entertaining, but more in an “Oh, god, it’s so bad, I can’t stop laughing” way. It was kind of like watching Sharknado — and it’s about as accurate about Cheney and the Iraq War as Sharknado is about sharks and the weather.

Let’s start with the characters: I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to cast the lovable Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, the man who personally approved specific torture techniques to be used on detainees in the “war on terror,” but that a horrible choice. In the film, Rumsfeld comes across as a charming but weak minor figure who’s largely eclipsed by Cheney’s overwhelming shadow — which couldn’t be further from the truth. Rumsfeld was a ruthless, cunning political operator who was just as responsible for the US invasion of Iraq as Cheney was.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in Vice.
Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

That’s a core problem with Vice: By focusing so exclusively on Cheney, it reduces everyone else, from Condoleezza Rice to President Bush himself, to mere supporting characters in the passion play of Cheney’s life. In reality, there were a whole lot of really powerful, manipulative, driven people who made atrocious decisions during the Bush administration; Cheney was one of them, but in many cases, he wasn’t the most important one.

In general, the film comes across as a silly liberal Hollywood hit piece on Cheney — and I say that as someone who loathes Dick Cheney. It plays fast and loose with the facts and attempts to blame Cheney for everything from the rise of ISIS to forest fires to the opioid crisis. It’s just absurd.

What was Vice trying to do? And did it succeed?

Alissa: I think what you’re both pointing to is the main question of the discourse that’s sprung up around this movie: What is Vice supposed to do? Zack, it sounds like you were more satisfied than not because it drew a connection between the past and the present, and tried to dismantle the idea that what’s going on today is somehow a new, grossly bad thing that doesn’t have to do with the kinder and gentler Dubya (or even Bush Sr.) era. Jenn, I think your concern is that the film feels like it’s trying to dismantle Cheney and co. but is not really self-aware enough to do that. Others have criticized the film for not being persuasive, or for preaching to the choir.

To be honest, I’m still pretty convinced — mostly from the way McKay chooses to wrap up the film, with a scene in which men sling insults like “libtard” at one another while a young woman smacks her gum and says she wants to watch the new Fast & Furious movie — that it’s a movie intended to indict the audience. But it might have the wrong audience and the wrong indictment in mind.

To draw on Zack’s conclusion, I think if you’re going to shame the audience, it shouldn’t be because they weren’t paying attention to politics in the ’90s and the ’00s because they were too distracted by Fast & Furious movies or name-calling. Rather, the problem might be more that we’ve failed to notice how all the pieces connect. And in that case, I think Vice could have made a much stronger, more lucid case that sensationalist TV news is really the problem. (Those bits with Naomi Watts apparently playing a Fox News host are among the strangest and most underplayed in the film.)

Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in Vice.
Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

But does a movie like this have a responsibility to represent the truth? On the one hand, farce and satire work by caricature. On the other, there are plenty of people who will see this film as the summary of the modern GOP, and so its inaccuracies could become, in effect, a stand-in for history for some of its audience — the very audience the film wants to indict in the first place. What do you think?

Zack: Alissa, I think you’ve hit on the core of the disagreement here. When I watched Vice, I wasn’t looking for point-by-point accuracy or verisimilitude. The movie even begins by noting that McKay and his team didn’t have much to go on, given the extremely limited public information about Cheney’s life, and that they were trying to reconstruct it. You can’t depict scenes 100 percent factually when nobody knows (aside from Cheney, of course) exactly what was said when.

What the movie was instead going for was a mood, an attempt to use Cheney as a focusing lens for a series of overall problems in modern politics. Jenn, respectfully, this is what I think you get wrong about the opioid and forest fire references in the movie. McKay is not attempting to blame Cheney for these things in a “liberal hit,” but rather to show how Cheney’s rise fits in with a broader story about the Republican Party and American politics. McKay was explicit about this in his interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in January:

It’s a portrait of Dick Cheney; it’s also about the rise of the Republican Party. And the final effect, I think, of the rise of the Republican Party — which, by the way, bleeds into the Democrats as well — is a cynicism about government, a lack of belief that government can solve anything, i.e., the opioid crisis, [tens of thousands of] people dying a year, the gun crisis, school shootings. It just seems like we are now in this position where no one really believes the government can fix anything. And the government doesn’t fix anything. Right now, as we speak, it’s literally shut down. The idea was Cheney as a central figure in the Republican Party. It’s not literally supposed to be “Dick Cheney’s responsible for that.”

I think the way someone evaluates Vice is based on how well they think McKay succeeded in telling that larger story about the Republican Party, not just Cheney’s personally. And to my mind, he was pretty successful!

Jenn: Yeah, Alissa, your question of “what was this movie supposed to do?” is absolutely at the center of both why this movie is so confusing and why Zack and I disagree. I’ve read it described variously as a “satire,” a “black comedy,” and a “biopic,” and I have no idea which one it was supposed to be — or whether it aimed to be something else entirely.

To Zack’s point, I’m sure if I had read McKay’s interview with the New Yorker before going to see Vice, I probably would have seen the film through that lens, or at least been more aware of the story that McKay was trying to tell.

But I didn’t; I just went and saw the movie with my mom over holidays.

She wanted me to see it with her in part because she’d already seen it once and wanted to hear what I thought about the accuracy of the story, as someone who is deeply familiar with the politics of the Iraq War and the Bush administration more generally.

Which brings me to my main criticism: A lot of people who see Vice probably will not have read interviews with McKay about it beforehand, and will also not know a ton about the actual factual history of the events portrayed in it — they will just be regular moviegoers seeing a movie on a Friday night.

And many of those people will likely walk away from it thinking, “Oh, wow, I had no idea any of that stuff happened!” Because that is what my mom (and my aunt who saw it with her the first time) said after seeing it.

A scene from Vice.
A scene from Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

And that is a problem. Because so much of what is portrayed in Vice is either misleading or straight-up inaccurate. And I don’t mean super-secret stuff about Cheney’s life or private conversations that the filmmakers obviously would have had a hard time knowing the details. I mean super-basic facts about the runup to the Iraq War, the politics of the war on terror, etc.

They open the film with the disclaimer that “We fucking tried our best” to get the facts right, but you can literally find half of the stuff they got wrong with a simple Google search and reading Wikipedia.

And yeah, people should not rely solely on a fictionalized film for an accurate understanding of history. Of course. But Vice explicitly states that McKay and his team tried to do their best to tell you a true story based on the available facts. That’s literally what is written on the screen at the beginning of the movie. It doesn’t say: “This is satire; we’re totally exaggerating and misrepresenting at least half of this shit.”

So, Zack, I get that you didn’t go into the movie expecting “point-by-point accuracy or verisimilitude,” but that’s what the movie purports to show, to the best of the filmmakers’ abilities, right up front, and in that, they fail spectacularly.

Alissa: And I, as a critic who remembers these events kind of hazily from being a teenager at the time, really did wonder throughout how much of this was accurate. As you said, Jenn, not everyone who sees the film will have read interviews with McKay!

Some reading recommendations

Alissa: But with all that said: If someone did want to find a way to learn more about what really happened during the period of time covered in Vice, are there books, documentaries, or articles that you might recommend?

Zack: Well, they should watch Vice, assume everything in it is true, and then send Jenn emails about how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s influence was largely a product of being called out by the administration on television. They’ll definitely learn some facts then!

More seriously, I mentioned James Mann earlier — his book on Bush’s foreign policy, Rise of the Vulcans, is widely considered a classic. It’s a good primer on the influence of people other than Cheney on the Bush administration’s worldview. If you want to look at torture policy, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side is similarly acclaimed. And to dig into the reasons behind the war, which are still debated by scholars to this day, I’d recommend this wonky debate at the international relations blog Duck of Minerva.

Jenn: I swear to god, Zack, if I get hundreds of emails because of this, I am absolutely going to forward every single one of them to you.

At any rate, Rise of the Vulcans is definitely a good choice. I’d also recommend the fabulous PBS Frontline documentary Bush’s War for a deeper understanding of how other key figures in the Bush administration besides Cheney helped drive the decision to invade Iraq. David Cole’s book The Torture Memos offers a stunning look at the actual legal memos the Bush administration used to justify torture, and a much more nuanced understanding of the roles that Bush administration officials like “torture memo” author John Yoo and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld played there. Finally, The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants is a brilliant and deeply researched book about where ISIS came from and the man who really orchestrated its rise, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. [Full disclosure: I helped Will with some editing and did Arabic translation on the footnotes for this book.]

Alissa: Terrific. I think my reading list is growing, and I can’t really add anything better to it. But I’ll be interested to see if the Oscar voters ultimately go for Vice — I doubt they will, because it’s a bit of a shaggy and divisive mess, but you never know — and I’m glad the movie exists if only to prompt this bigger look at the era it covers.

Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice