Vice has won awards along with praise from audiences and critics alike, but how well does it inform its audience about Dick Cheney? This week I take a look at the important material that Vice overlooked, or didn’t know about. From his rewriting of a key investigation into CIA black operations, to his support for President Reagan amidst the Iran-Contra scandal, to his mysterious movements during the 9/11 attacks, this is an exploration of the secret world of Dick Cheney.
Vice is a dramatic biopic of Dick Cheney, focusing on his years as Vice President to George W Bush. It was well received by critics and audiences and was nominated for several Oscars, winning one. It was written and directed by Adam McKay, the guy who wrote and directed The Big Short, which is one of the reasons I decided to look at it now, following on from episode 174.
In my opinion, Vice is a superior film to The Big Short. It is more like a film, it has a narrative thrust and doesn’t keep reminding you that you’re watching a film. Aside from one scene I enjoyed the whole thing, I even quite liked Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. I felt he made too much of Cheney’s vocal idiosyncracies – the soft ‘ummms’ and nasal breathing mid-sentence – but Bale is never one to give an understated, subtle performance.
The one scene I hated, just to get it out of the way, is when Cheney comes back from his first meeting with George W Bush, who wants him to be his running mate in the 2000 election. He comes home and he’s brushing his teeth while talking to his wife, and the voice-over kicks in and says we don’t know what Cheney and his wife said to each other, and they can’t wrap up everything in a Shakespearean soliloquy. Before then showing the two in bed, talking in Shakespearean soliloquies. It was pointless, masturbatory moment from a director who clearly thinks he’s a lot smarter than his audience. And he may be, but that’s no reason to rub their faces in it.
Aside from that one moment of ejaculatory futility, it’s a very solid film that at least tries to tell some kind of truth about Cheney’s role in the Bush White House, and thus in the post-9/11 war on terror. It does a fairly good job, talking about Cheney’s secret meetings with oil execs where they pre-emptively carved up Iraq’s oil fields, how he used curious legal loopholes to effectively sidestep the President and run large parts of the policy machine himself. It fairly bluntly shows the cynical cooking of intelligence over Iraq.
All of which make it a valuable film that does a good job of getting its audience to understand and reflect on recent history that was a vital stepping stone to where we are now. While I criticised The Big Short quite strongly, I have only minor gripes with Vice as a piece of cinema.
Where I have some more major gripes is in its selection of facts. Not in its factual accuracy – which is about as good as you’d expect for a well made Hollywood movie – but in which facts they chose to include in the film. That being said, my first major gripe is with its factual accuracy, before we move on to the things they left out.
This is, of course, a clip from Vice depicting what Cheney was doing during the 9/11 attacks. It shows him being rushed to the PEOC, the President’s Emergency Operations Center, and ultimately giving the shoot-down order to Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.
The problem is that it has Cheney being rushed to the PEOC only after the Pentagon was hit, due to reports of a plane headed towards the White House. Numerous witnesses and reports place Cheney at the PEOC earlier, sometime between shortly after 9:00 a.m. and 9:20. Certainly before the strike at the Pentagon at about 9:38. Cheney himself said he was there before the Pentagon was struck, but perhaps the most famous testimony comes from Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.
So, according to Mineta not only was Cheney in the PEOC, he was giving orders regarding the air defenses as the plane approached the Pentagon. There is a lot of dispute as to whether those orders were to shoot down the plane or to let it crash into its target, but either Mineta and a bunch of other people are wrong or lying, or Cheney was there considerably earlier than the film portrays.
The film also avoids the 9/11 Commission entirely, where Bush and Cheney testified together, in secret. And, it seems, said a bunch of things that weren’t true, including repeating the now totally-debunked Iraq-Al Qaeda myth. While Cheney is shown to be ruthless and cunning and a liar, it seems the film-makers either didn’t do their research on this point or didn’t have the balls to include this fairly incriminating truth. Instead they went with a version that isn’t even backed by the 9/11 Commission, who say Cheney arrived in the bunker about 20 minutes after he arrives in the film. So I don’t know where they got their information.
Vice and Cheney’s early government years
Vice pulls a few punches when it comes to 9/11, which I can understand because there still hasn’t been a Hollywood movie that seriously criticises 9/11. Especially given that Vice’s depiction of Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell, is so good. Just like in The Big Short, my favourite scene is all about Carell’s performance mixed with the most profound moment in the story. This is when a young Dick Cheney is working as an aide to Rumsfeld, who at the time was Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Nixon administration.
This moment captures the incredible cynicism of ambitious politicians, as well as the relativistic, post-ideological politics that rose in the latter half of the 20th century. The notion of actually believing in something is not just treated as naive, it’s openly mocked.
Indeed, one of the problems I have with Vice is that it doesn’t devote enough time to this period, the 70s and 80s, when Cheney was developing his political career. Given that several minutes are devoted to his heart transplant, to no great purpose, they had the running time to do more with Cheney’s early years in government. This is a guy who was deputy assistant to the President, assistant to the President, deputy Chief of Staff under Rumsfeld and then became the youngest White House Chief of Staff ever. This is all rushed through as though it isn’t relevant, but it is.
Through being in these positions Cheney learned how the White House really works, and how isolated and ineffective a president can be – he was working under Gerald Ford, let’s not forget. It is this period that gave us Team B, one of the most interesting turning points in the history of the CIA, for example. They reference Team B later in the film but again it is brushed off, when in reality this is where the war on terror mentality first took hold in the CIA, and when terrorism first became a major US intelligence concern.
There are other things that the film could, and should, have included. I can thoroughly recommend a recent briefing by the National Security Archive called The VICE file: Dick Cheney Declassified. To give you a flavour:
The documents show how Cheney built a rap sheet for drunk driving and arranged draft deferments in the 1960s, pitched in on President Gerald R. Ford’s unsuccessful veto of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1974, helped undermine investigations of CIA scandals in 1975, excused President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra misdeeds in 1987, mistakenly distrusted Gorbachev and slowed the end of the Cold War in 1989, promoted the global hegemon role for the U.S. in 1992, hid his work with oil companies in 2001 to set energy policy, endorsed torture and warrantless surveillance in the 2000s, played a leading role in trashing Iraq and the Middle East from the Iraq invasion in 2003 to the present, mysteriously went whole days at the White House without his Vice President’s office generating any saved e-mail, and presented a danger to civilians whether they were armed or not by shooting his hunting partner in 2006.
I’m sure you can see why I like this article, this is exactly the sort of thing I like reading. Admittedly, some of this makes it into the film but there are a few things that didn’t that bear exploration.
First we have the efforts to persuade Ford to veto the Open Government bill, which strengthened the Freedom of Information Act. Both Rumsfeld and Ford had voted for the original act 8 year earlier, indeed Rummy had been one of the sponsors of the legislation, but by 1974 things had changed. Post-Watergate there was a new paranoia about leaks within the White House, and Rumsfeld and Cheney were at the heart of this fear. They both pushed Ford to veto the bill, as did Justice Department lawyer Antonin Scalia. Scalia even encouraged the director of the CIA and other high officials to let the president know that they too, supported vetoing the bill.
It’s curious, because Scalia turns up several times in Vice but this episode, which fits in with other themes in the movie, does not. In the end Ford vetoed the bill but was overridden by Congress. Nonetheless it shows how in sync Cheney was with the CIA mentality – abolishing FOIA has been a long-term CIA objective.
Then, in mid-1975 we have Cheney’s handwritten edits to the Rockefeller Commission’s report on illegal CIA activities. The report is widely considered to be a whitewash, especially when compared to the Church Committee’s report, but few people know how intimately Cheney was involved in redrafting it. He took out a recommendation that CIA officers should be able to report illegal activities direct to the Inspector General. He changed the language so instead of various actions being deemed illegal they were merely improper. He removed an entire section on attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, saying simply that the Commission hadn’t had time to cover this subject, when in reality it had.
If you’re wondering whether this guy who had only entered government 6 years earlier as an assistant to a congressman, who rose so fast he was White House Chief of Staff by 1975, rewriting investigations into the CIA, was in fact a CIA asset, I don’t know. But I wonder that too, especially given that in the late 80s he became a director of the CIA-friendly Council on Foreign Relations.
Cheney also turns up in the Iran-Contra story, because he was on the investigative committee. Cheney even praised Oliver North – who was so evasive in answering questions that even Congress and the media noticed. Cheney described him as ‘the most effective and impressive witness certainly this committee has heard.’ Dick would go on to be one of main players behind a minority report arguing against the conclusions of the majority report of the investigation, saying that Reagan’s mistakes were all just errors in judgement, and that ‘There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up.’
All of which fits into the story they told in Vice, of a man who was very ambitious, comfortable with the dark side of foreign policy, willing to use institutional secrecy to cover up crimes, a servant of power and a devotee of the absolute power of the executive branch of government. Given that after 9/11 Cheney helped bring in the warrantless wiretapping, the torture program, widespread assassinations via drone and airstrikes and other methods, the legal contradictions and ambiguities which means Guantanamo Bay is still open and operational, you’d think some of this earlier material was valuable context.
Indeed, that would have turned Vice from merely a good film into a great film, showing how this will to power, this mentality, took root in the decades before 9/11, rather than was simply a cynical exploitation of 9/11 after the event.
Vice and The War on Terror
The other scene that bothered me in Vice is where Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and others are in a restaurant and a waiter is reading them items from the menu, including Guantanamo Bay, enemy combatants and so on. It’s not that the scene is poorly executed, it’s that it is played for laughs and treated as a joke. These are some of the worst human rights abuses in living memory and this film – the most hard-hitting of its kind – still can’t stare down the barrel of these atrocities and just be honest about them. It has to find some way to make them palatable for discussion, but in doing so does nothing to re-assert morality in the face of these horrors. And as such, just continues the US media tradition of normalising the unthinkable.
This bothers me deeply. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be able to make jokes about this, I’m saying the film is pulling its punches right when it’s getting to the most serious material. That it seeks to entertain its audience at the critical moment when it could have broken through and become the serious film it wants to be. And that the consequence of this is another missed opportunity to actually get real about the real world, rather than engage in emotional or ontological fantasy. After all, this isn’t a Marvel comic book movie, it’s about real life.
However, we should praise the film for foregrounding Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and one of the leaders of the Iraq insurgency. Before the US invaded Iraq, Zarqawi was a small time figure in the global jihad movement, disliked by Bin Laden and not capable of causing trouble except in one small area of Iraq. Because of the invasion, and because the US turned him into this mythical super-terrorist, he gained credibility and a small army of willing recruits. This is a largely forgotten piece of history on the road to ISIS, but it’s an important one. Though I should also point out that some people both in Iraq and elsewhere question whether Zarqawi really existed, or was a symbol used to recruit and radicalise the Iraqi insurgency.
Here again the film makes a serious blunder, by linking Zarqawi and the Iraq insurgency to the 7/7 London bombings. They include a long, lingering shot of a Picadilly Line train that has been bombed, and a trail of blood out of the doors and onto the station platform. This not only misses the point that all the trains were blown up in tunnels, not in stations (which lowered the casualty rate and restricted access to the scenes) but also repeats the hazy idea that 7/7 was somehow an Al Qaeda or otherwise overseas attack. No evidence has ever been presented for this, it is simply presumed that 7/7 was somehow revenge for Iraq. Indeed, from what I’ve seen US entertainment media simply can’t say anything true about 7/7, every time I’ve seen it referenced in a film or TV show they get basic details wrong, and it’s simply exploited for emotional impact.
Another thing they missed out of Vice was stuff like this:
This is a report based on a book by Tom Ridge, the first Director of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005. He revealed that the Bush administration deliberately spiked the terror threat level in the run-up to the 2004 election, capitalising on people’s fears. At the end there they mention the financial buildings plot, which helped get Bush elected.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the financial buildings plot was a nonsense, based on a handful of computer files found on the laptop of so-called Al Qaeda computer expert Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. The files were apparently written by Dhiren Barot, an Indian-born British member of Al Qaeda, and included laughable plans to build a dirty bomb and blow it up in London, and to fill limousines with gas cylinders and detonate them under a building. Barot had no ability to carry out these plans, one of which called for buying 10,000 smoke detectors, as though you could do that without drawing a lot of attention.
As I mentioned in the Aimen Dean episode, the story gets even worse. When Noor Khan was arrested in July 2004 he immediately flipped and began working for the CIA and the ISI. They used his laptop to keep sending emails to Al Qaeda members, and could have used him for years, helping track cells and possibly even helping find Bin Laden.
But when the Bush admin took these old files from Khan’s computer – which hadn’t been updated in years – and used them to raise the threat level, Tom Ridge was party to all this and announced it was the result of the president’s leadership in the war on terror. At the same time they leaked Khan’s name to the press, and it was printed the following day. This led to the British having to swoop in and arrest everyone in Britain involved with Dhiren Barot and in contact with Noor Khan, in case they picked up the NY Times and realised Khan was now a double agent.
Indeed, various reports say that at the time of Barot’s arrest there was virtually no admissable evidence against him. Several people slipped through the net and were never arrested, and several more were released without charge. Barot ended up pleading guilty, even though the main evidence against him was a tourist video he’d shot in New York years earlier.
While it isn’t exactly clear who leaked Khan’s name, let’s not forget it was Cheney’s office who leaked Valerie Plame’s name to the press as revenge for her husband printing a story about a phoney terror threat. It was also Cheney’s office who leaked Aimen Dean’s name as an Al Qaeda informant. I’ve never seen confirmation that it was Cheney’s office who leaked Khan’s name, bur it’s a near certainty given what else we know.
Now, you could say that because the financial buildings plot was an old and impractical plan that what did it matter that Khan’s name was leaked and the plot had to be busted up immediately? And that is a fair point. But Khan was in touch with lots of other people and apparently served as Al Qaeda’s computer expert. Having such a key node in Al Qaeda working for the CIA was a massive intelligence ‘get’, but like so many others it was squandered for political gain. It’s clear that winning the election was more important than winning the struggle with Al Qaeda, inasmuch as that struggle was even real.
You also have to wonder about all these claims about how difficult it was to get human sources inside Al Qaeda, given that Cheney’s office burned two of them and blew their cover. By that point – the early 2000s – Al Qaeda had broken apart and was a much more disparate, amorphous network of franchise groups and small cells, their base in Afghanistan had been destroyed. So if they really were trying to find Bin Laden and others who’d survived the Afghan blitz, Khan and Dean and the like were of critical importance. But MI6 never used Dean to try to find Bin Laden, and then Cheney’s office burned him. Likewise, the CIA never had the chance to use Khan to find Bin Laden because someone – probably Cheney’s office – burned him within weeks of him being turned into a double agent.
And all this has been fairly widely reported in mainstream media. If you search for Naeem Noor Khan you’ll find all this quite easily, let alone Ridge’s book and other media reports on this story. This isn’t something I found buried in an obscure CIA document, and it’s a damn good story that reveals a lot about how the war on terror was really being fought.
But it doesn’t appear in Vice. Indeed, the CIA barely feature in Vice at all, despite Cheney’s long-standing connections to them and the vital role they played in the post-9/11 Bush administration. It seems in trying to focus our attention on one man – Dick Cheney – they overlooked vital pieces of context that would have enriched the film and made it a more critically informative piece of cinema.
So that’s what Vice doesn’t tell you about Dick Cheney.