BEVERLY HILLS, California—The first time Adam McKay put Dick Cheney on screen was almost two decades ago. President George W. Bush had finally taken office following the Florida recount drama in the fall of 2000. McKay was head writer at Saturday Night Live at the time and had an idea for a cold open sketch. An announcer would say, “And now a message from the president of the United States,” and when the lights came up, Darrell Hammond’s Dick Cheney would be sitting behind the Oval Office desk.
“By the way, it’s not like a joke I made up,” McKay tells me on a recent morning in Beverly Hills. He’s wearing a gray suit, chewing gum as he slouches down on a hotel suite chair too small for his six-foot five-inch frame. “Everyone was saying that. Everyone was joking about how Cheney was really in charge.”
In the sketch, Hammond’s Cheney instructs anyone making less than a million dollars a year to turn the channel because “this won’t concern you” and advises those who remain to put all of their money in defense stocks because war is coming. “I wrote this crazy, cartoonish piece of all these extreme things that later all kind of came true,” McKay says with a wry laugh.
Those “extreme things” form the backbone of Vice, McKay’s highly anticipated and already controversial biopic, which stars Oscar-winner Christian Bale as Cheney and arrives in theaters Christmas Day.
In the same way his 2015 film The Big Short examined how esoteric banking products led to catastrophic devastation for America’s middle class, McKay views Vice as the story of a “quiet, patient, uncharismatic bureaucrat who changed the course of world history.”
“I always knew the guy to drop right in the middle of this—a dead drop from 40,000 feet—was Christian Bale,” he says. When it was first announced that the 44-year-old British actor would be playing Cheney in McKay’s film, the news received a collective WTF from the public. (The first set photos put some of those concerns to rest.) But McKay says that “from the second” he saw Vice in his head as a movie, he knew it had to star Bale, who put on more than 40 extra pounds for the role.
“Everything I make I just go back to the fact that I love movies,” McKay says. “When I was a kid, when I lived in New York, even here in L.A., I just see movies constantly. And if I heard Christian Bale was playing Dick Cheney, there’s just no way I’m not seeing that movie. No one goes deeper and with more determination than Bale. And sure enough, man oh man, he did not let me down.”
Bale is such a good actor, in fact, that he really can’t help but humanize Cheney in a way that some critics have found off-putting.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott said McKay’s film takes a “surprisingly sympathetic interest in its chosen demon.” In a piece for The Daily Beast that posited Vice “might be the worst movie of the year,” my colleague Kevin Fallon wrote that the film “at best marginally humanizes Dick Cheney and at worst lionizes him.” On the other end of the political spectrum, the National Review called Vice an “InfoWars-style garbage dump” that gets everything about Cheney wrong.
For what it’s worth, McKay is used to having bad reviews be proven wrong by history. None other than Roger Ebert absolutely panned 2008’s Step Brothers, accusing it of lowering “the civility of our civilization” and asking, “When did comedies get so mean?” Ten years later, it’s considered by many to be the “greatest comedy movie of the past decade.”
McKay doesn’t hide his own personal biases and animosity towards Cheney, but he did genuinely strive to make a movie that is as factual as possible. A note to viewers before the film begins warns that telling this “true story” of an incredibly secretive man wasn’t always easy, ending with, “We tried our fucking best.”
Even if he had been granted access to the former vice president, McKay says, “As soon as you go to Dick Cheney, it’s an authorized biography, which means he can cut out whatever he wants. And we don’t want that. We weren’t going to play that game, because it would just kill the movie immediately.”
If McKay could sit down with Cheney today, he says he would want to ask him everything from, “Why did you vote against all these environmental laws that protect the streams and rivers that you fish in?” to larger questions like, “Why Iraq?”
“But really the big question I would ask is, ‘Do you ever lay awake at night?’” he adds. “That’s the question, right? That’s the question we would ask Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell: Do you ever lay awake at night?”
While McKay was finalizing the film, his fellow comedian Sacha Baron Cohen did get the chance to sit down for an interview with Cheney. In disguise as his former Mossad agent character Col. Erran Morad, Baron Cohen roped the former vice president into an interview for his Showtime series Who Is America? It was the clip of Cheney autographing Baron Cohen’s “waterboard kit” that served as the show’s first teaser this past summer.
“It was horrifying. It really made me sick,” McKay says of the segment that aired last summer. “I didn’t mind what Sacha did. Sacha did what he’s supposed to do. Sacha goes towards these sorts of figures and gets them to show how ridiculous and thoughtless their positions are. I just thought like, man…” He trails off, stopping just short of criticizing Baron Cohen for giving Cheney a platform.
“When I saw him in that, it was just like, there’s just this emptiness of what he could have been versus what he is,” McKay adds, letting out a heavy sigh. “And now he’s just this guy defending his legacy. It’s just like, is this the best that we can do?”
In a recent interview with Deadline, Baron Cohen said that he spent a total of about three hours with Cheney, who he described as “unflappable” no matter what insane question or premise he threw his way. “I think he felt happy and almost excited to sit in a room next to my character because I had done the one thing that he hadn’t actually done,” Baron Cohen said. “He’d ordered people to be killed but he never actually killed someone with his bare hands.”
Instead of talking directly to Cheney and the other major figures portrayed in the film, McKay says he relied on “the work of dozens and dozens of incredible journalists who had written amazing books, interviews, pieces, stories, who were kind of raising their hands going, ‘This is a big deal, look at this.’” Eventually the production hired its own journalists to go out and interview about 10-15 people from within Cheney’s orbit, all off the record.
“Really what that was about was to confirm the story that we were creating,” McKay says. “And in some cases it came back and we were actually a little conservative about what we were doing. So we really tried to catch every single piece of what the story was, really tried to go deep with it, tried to be fair. There were a couple of scenes where no one was there and in those cases I just played it conservative. I didn’t have any characters crying or punching holes in walls.”
One big exception is a bedroom scene between Dick and Lynne Cheney (the always impressive Amy Adams) after George W. Bush has asked him to be his running mate for the 2000 election. Precisely because McKay did not know how the couple discussed the decision in private, he dramatized the scene as a Shakespearean tragedy, with the Cheneys evoking the Macbeths as they plot to finally take control of the country. It is one of the few sequences that pushes the film into full-on comedy, with thunder cracking and music swelling before things ultimately crash back down to earth.
When the Golden Globe nominations were announced earlier this month, Vice surprised awards watchers by leading the pack with six nods. In a strategic bit of what could be considered category fraud, the film put itself forward as a “Musical or Comedy.”
Like McKay’s The Big Short, which made the same gambit three years ago, Vice does have some laughs—mostly thanks to Best Supporting Actor nominee Sam Rockwell’s comically inept George W. Bush and Steve Carell’s swaggering Donald Rumsfeld—but plays more like a dark historical drama for much of the film. (On the flip side, both A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody are nominated in the “Drama” category, despite the fact that they are essentially musicals.)
McKay says that when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Globes, asked him whether he viewed Vice as a comedy or drama he told them he genuinely didn’t know.
“I don’t understand the times we’re living in right now,” he says. “The moment I always go back to is, after Northern California basically burned down, Trump was there saying we have to ‘rake’ the forest. What is that? That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen and it’s also really sad and tragic.”
McKay likes to think that both Vice and The Big Short live in that gray area. “Honestly, as a filmmaker I don’t really care,” he says. Citing recent films he loved like Get Out and Eighth Grade—both directed by comedians—he adds, “I think we’re just barreling towards a post-genre world.”
The most unexpected Golden Globe nomination for the film went to Rockwell, who plays Bush as a bumbling idiot more than happy to hand the reins of his administration over to Cheney. Rockwell “maybe had one of the hardest jobs in the movie,” McKay says, because he “had to play this character that was so defined by Will Ferrell.”
The first time it occurred to McKay that he might want to make a movie about Cheney was when he and Ferrell were putting together You’re Welcome America, their theatrical production about George W. Bush that ran on Broadway in 2009. The more time they spent with the 43rd president, the pair realized they didn’t really “hate” Bush, but rather viewed him as something of a “goofball.”
“In the back of mind, a little thing kept hovering around there going like, I know Dick Cheney did shit, but did he do more than we think?” McKay remembers asked himself.
This brings us to an uncomfortable allegation McKay’s former Upright Citizens Brigade alum and SNL colleague Horatio Sanz lobbed in his general direction a few years ago. Speaking to podcast host Bill Simmons, Sanz accused SNL, when McKay was head writer, of essentially helping to elect Bush over Al Gore.
"When that election came up and it was really close—we're talking about 10,000 votes maybe difference in Florida—if people are on the fence, and they watch SNL and see Will Ferrell’s being W. and having a beer and being a bro, I think that maybe pushes it over,” Sanz said at the time. “We’re talking about 10 million people that are watching that, and to say 10 thousand of those would be swayed by the television show isn’t too crazy.” He added, "It was that kind of conservative bullshit that I was against.”
As I’m recounting what Sanz has said, McKay takes a deep breath and starts shaking his head, “No, no, no, I don’t agree with that at all. Look, Donald Trump is way more fun than Hillary Clinton. You know who else is more fun than Hillary Clinton? A hyena with a crossbow in its back haunch.”
“Yeah, you’re electing celebrity, you’re electing distraction. But how do you counteract that?” he asks. “It’s a genius strategic move. And it’s worked over and over again. And with Sarah Palin it almost worked. I mean, we forget that if the world economy had not collapsed, McCain and Palin would have won. They were moving ahead because of her. There was a moment when Kid Rock was talking about running for Senate and it was like, he’s going to win!”
“So, I don’t know, does SNL make this stuff look better?” McKay wonders aloud. “Sure, they’re playing that game, but I don’t know what else you’re supposed to do.”
Nearly two decades after Darrell Hammond’s first appearance as the vice president, there was the real Cheney, making a rare public appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press to talk about the passing of his old friend George H.W. Bush. It was a surreal sight for this reporter, who had just watched Bale’s uncanny transformation at a screening of Vice just a few days earlier.
The show’s moderator Chuck Todd joked around with the 77-year-old Cheney about duck hunting and asked him to put the elder Bush’s legacy in perspective. He did not pose any hard questions about Cheney’s own record. “You look healthy,” Todd said at the end of the interview. “You feel good?”
“Feel great. New heart's ticking,” Cheney, whose 2012 transplant inspires the biggest twist in McKay’s film, answered. “Everything's good.”
Cheney’s genial TV appearance, followed by George W. Bush’s tearful eulogy for his father a few days later, capped what has been a slow but steady rehabilitation for the pair during the Trump era. With Vice, McKay aims to remind Americans that no matter how awful Trump may seem they should never be nostalgic for the Bush-Cheney years.
While McKay stresses that he didn’t have any big problems with the coverage of George H.W. Bush’s funeral, he says, “What upset me was when I started hearing before that, ‘Makes you miss W. Bush.’ Friends of mine would say that and I’d go, ‘Are you crazy?’”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “Trump is dispiriting and upsetting and we’ve essentially shot a drunk orangutan into the White House. But it’s nowhere near the damage that these guys did. These guys were smart and they knew what they were doing.”
In terms of the media treating Cheney and W. Bush with “respect,” McKay says, “I get it, because H.W. just died. I guess you’ve got to give a little room on that. But when I saw W. Bush dancing on Ellen, that was one of the strangest things.” He likens it to the scenes from the documentary The Act of Killing in which death-squad leaders in Indonesia reenact their mass killings.
McKay hopes that when the time comes for the country to eulogize Cheney and W. Bush they will not “get a pass” for the damage they did. “If we get our act together, they’ll be called out for nearly a million people killed in Iraq, for clearly, in some cases, war crimes that should have been prosecuted.”
He also thinks Gerald Ford set a terrible precedent when he pardoned Nixon and worries that it set off a chain reaction of presidents forgiving their predecessors’ sins—one that could continue with Trump’s successor. Nor does he give President Obama a pass for refusing to hold the previous administration to account when he took office.
“I know it’s a messy job, but you’ve got to at least do something,” he says of Obama. “You’ve got to acknowledge what happened. And no one wants to do it. It’s not fun. There’s so many thing that politically don’t score points, but you have to do them. And I thought that was a disappointment from him.”
“I hate to break to everyone, but sometimes you have to prosecute criminal acts,” McKay continues, growing more visibly frustrated. He says it’s like a new school janitor showing up for his first day on the job and finding vomit in the hall from the day before. “And you’re like, ‘Look, I wasn’t here when the throw-up came down. What’s the win I get out of this?’” he imagines the new guy thinking. “Dude, you’re the janitor, clean it up.”