Vice: A 120 Minute Trip Into An Alternate History Mytopia

February 15, 2019
February 17, 2019

Trapped by snow at my parent’s home in Boston I was persuaded to see the film Vice. It represented a break from being trapped inside, and I generally enjoy both humor and political set pieces. I had no great expectations for accuracy or insight. Popular media, especially in the film industry, has made no secret either of its views of the motives of US foreign policy, or a general inability to handle any degree of subtlety whatsoever when it comes to motivations of political actors. The result has been a strange dichotomy wherein the US military is lionized, but US policy makers are reduced not just to villains but two dimensional ones, either obsessed solely with greed, incompetent, or both. That unlike George Bush or Condoleezza Rice, Richard Cheney has made few if any efforts to manage his image in popular media made any expectation of a favorable treatment impossible.

I therefore expected a hostile treatment, and was not disappointed. The movie makes no bones about its hostility, though it does oddly make a few gestures in favor of the Cheneys on a personal level. That of course, is undermined by a complete contempt of basic factual accuracy or verification regarding events or characters. George W. Bush, who had sworn off alcohol and effectivelyserved as his father’s political enforcer in the 1980s and early 1990s, even going so far as to personally recruit Lee Atwater to run the 1988 Presidential campaign, is portrayed as an embarrassing drunk at an official White House event. Basic Google searches, much less Wikipedia would have avoided this, but cultural orthodoxy was strong enough to apparently need no verification. The Koch brothers, a particular preoccupation of the Obama era, are somehow backdated into the early 1980s, with no mention of the Coors, or other major rightwing donor families that actually played a key role in politics or the rise of the New Right. Cheney’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, in which he oversaw intervention in Panama(how could one leave out a chance to rant about American “imperialism” in Latin America), the end of the Soviet Union, and the first Persian Gulf War are entirely omitted.

One could try to deconstruct the segments dealing with Cheney’s Vice Presidential tenure in the same manner, but that would be in large measure pointlessly tedious. Suffice to say he plots and schemes, first to isolate the President and Bush’s inner circle with a set of his own loyalists, and then to pursue an agenda of tax cuts, torture, the advancement of a theory of the “unilateral executive” and ultimately the invasion of Iraq. The move has no shortage of what. It is why that is missing. There is some gestures in the direction of financial interests, especially regarding Halliburton, but the Cheney in the film never shows much interest in money, would have made vastly more in the private sector, made no moves to “cash in” after leaving office, and went about it in a very inefficient way if that was his goal. An emotional theory that Dick Cheney did it so as not to disappoint his wife might justify why he took the Vice Presidency, but does nothing to explain what he did with it after. The movie’s own conclusion, where Cheney says he did what he had to in order to protect America is unenlightening, and contradicts an earlier segment where Donald Rumsfeld laughs off an inquiry from a younger Cheney as to “what do we believe?” by breaking into laughter.

Ironically, that scene highlights the real bankruptcy of the film, and one it shares with an entire culture and a large portion of American academia. Namely, absolute faith in a particular narrative of American history, one not only where basic fact checking is not required, but where the very concept that an intelligent person aware of the basic facts could hold a different interpretation is unthinkable. Having concluded that any intelligent observer or participant of the events of the last 50 years must agree with them, it is then impossible to understand how intelligent individuals could follow policies – support for the Vietnam war, deregulation, lower taxes, intervention in Latin America – without either having a personal stake, often financial, or being evil. Because “everyone knows deregulation is bad” the idea that Conservatives support financial or media deregulation must be due to the money spent by their wealthy donors, the same way modern conspiracy theorists assume support for Israel is, as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar recently so eloquently put it, “all about the Benjamins”. The idea that anyone could honestly support Israel out of principle is unthinkable, they must be on the take. In turn, it has become an article of faith that Iraq was invaded "for Oil" and that it is the NRA's wallet rather than its 60 million members that soley stands in the way of gun control.

Vice is not alone in this, merely unsubtle about it, a homage to how out of fashion justifying views has become in an age of "muh" and memes. It is, however a much larger phenomena, one I highlighted a year ago in my review of Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge, following the years between Watergate and Reagan’s almost successful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. In that book, Perlstein, wondered how the triumph of the anti-war movement, the abortion rights lobby, and critics of the CIA in 1973 could be overturned by a right-wing backlash, all the while ignoring his own evidence that no such triumph had taken place. Whatever public thoughts on the wisdom of the war, the view that the US was in the wrong in Vietnam, that the war was “unjust” always was and remained a fringe view, and even suggestions of US withdrawal remained at the margins. When a candidate ran on withdrawing America from Vietnam in 1972, he lost by one of the largest margins in US history.

That, however is not how history has been written, not least because it has largely been written by a particular social and political group who see themselves of the losers in America post 1960s. As economic and political power shifted from the traditional cultural and educational elites of the coast to the rising sunbelt, the former retreated into their fortresses of academia and the media, crafting their own record of the years 1968-Present, ones which chronicled not the steady triumph of America, in the Cold War, the Computer Revolution, and overcoming divisions which saw actual racial and class riots on the streets in 1960s along with political murders, but rather a tragic tale of promises betrayed, American aggression in Latin America, moral failures at home, of greed and conspiracy between the rising sunbelt business leaders and the dominant politicians. Namely the people who had displaced the traditional American intellectual ruling class economically and politically.

In this narrative, Watergate is a watershed. Nixon’s victory, achieved, in the now-orthodox narrative, through sabotage of the Paris Peace Negotiations in 1968 between the US and North Vietnam was the first step down this dark path of Sun Belt populism. Watergate, the culmination of a guerrilla fought by activists, the journalists of the New York Times and Washington Post, and the old guard of the political and legal system was a miracle, a chance to get off the train and go in another direction. It showed the superiority of traditional institutions(and elites), and voters should have showed gratitude as they seemed to do in 1974. Instead, the American people and country rejected this last chance, embraced Ronald Reagan, then Newt Gingrich, then(in another stolen election or so it goes, at least in Vice) George W. Bush.

Vice in this sense is a simplistic screed of someone educated in this narrative but without the background to understand the full intricacies of its academic form. Nonetheless, the movie’s flaws are those of the narrative it follows.

At the heart, that flaw is the refusal to view Watergate another way, in the form of a coup. A coup by elites who had never accepted their loss of power in 1968(or 1963 with Kennedy’s death) who abandoned any commitment to democratic change after their 1972 defeat and sought to accomplish through the media and courts what they had failed to achieve at the ballot box. That Nixon’s own flaws contributed to his destruction, something even he conceded later, is beside the point to those holding this view. What matter is what Nixon’s enemies did with their power. Having inherited power at a time when Nixon had “won” the Vietnam war with the Paris Peace Agreement, out of sheer spite they removed the American tripwire which had in South Korea kept peace after the Korean War by prohibiting all aid to South Vietnam, and all but urged North Vietnam on its final offensive. The destruction of South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge murder of millions in Cambodia, and the rendering meaningless of the sacrifice of every American who fell in Vietnam, all were the responsibility of the vengeful “Watergate babies” who went further seeking to destroy the CIA, undermine the Shah, brought about the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and nearly lost the Cold War.

Is the above a plausible version of history? Some of it is, far more than is commonly accepted. While imperfect, South Vietnam had four times the standard of living of the North in 1975, and South Korea was far weaker economically and equally flawed politically in 1953. The Paris Peace Accords were provisional, but backed by a US deterrent it was possible to imagine sheer time, and the Sino-Soviet split giving permanence to a South Vietnam which then would have evolved into a wealth democracy like South Korea or Taiwan. South Vietnam after all was holding its own in 1972 with less than 30,000 American troops compared with over 600,000 four years earlier.

But what matters is not whether this is correct or not but that someone like Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom worked in the Nixon Administration, believed in it, and came from non-elite backgrounds with little sympathy for the nostalgia-driven obsessions of Washington liberals, likely did see Watergate as a coup, and what followed as some of the greatest human rights “crimes” in American history. For them, the hypocrisy of anyone who voted to prohibit aid to South Vietnam or who cheered on the Khmer Rouge complaining about US “war crimes” in El Salvador, support for Pinochet, or, much later, waterboarding or holding prisoners in Guantanamo bay, would have been rage inducing. Likely to a degree explaining why they found it difficult to engage with individuals invested in those narratives, and not worth justifying themselves.

If one wanted a speculative motive for revenge, one driven by moral indignation and idealism, that would be it. But it would require reflection, something Vice made no effort to do. Instead it regurgitated conventional wisdom badly.

It is simply a movie.  Badly researched, badly written, badly plotted, albeit well-acted. The latter has received the most attention, and Christian Bale is impressive as Cheney. But he is playing a Bond villain. He is doing so well, with dedication, but the miracle of his physical transformation cannot hide that the character he plays, and hence his performance, are two dimensional. There is no complexity to convey, not even a message for the audience other than to make them feel smug in what they already "know" to be true.
But the preconceptions and ideological blind spots featured in it define much of the left of the Democratic party, fully on display when Ilhan Omar or other left-leaning figures discuss US policy in Latin America or immigration. Decision making depends on knowledge, and much of the American center-left, while decrying global warming deniers and anti-vaccine activists, has willfully created a false version of history covering the last 50 years and then indoctrinated themselves into believing it. That has cost them dearly at the ballot box. It could still cost the nation and world even more heavily if they ever achieve power.


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