The filmmaker Adam McKay, far left, was nominated for three Oscars for “Vice,” which stars Christian Bale as Dick Cheney.
Last week, the filmmaker Adam McKay received three Academy Award nominations—for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay—for “Vice,” his seriocomic bio-pic of the former Vice-President Dick Cheney. McKay, a former lead writer for “Saturday Night Live” and a longtime comedy partner of Will Ferrell’s, won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, in 2016, for “The Big Short,” his widely acclaimed adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the origins of the 2008 financial crisis.
Like “The Big Short,” “Vice” features famous stars in big roles—Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell—and asides that are meant to shock in their lack of subtlety. (A waiter, played by Alfred Molina, reads from a menu that includes various forms of Cheney-endorsed torture.) “Vice” has sparked a reappraisal of the Bush years and a debate over McKay’s vision of Cheney, as less of a conservative than someone motivated by the desire to achieve power, at whatever cost.
McKay and I spoke on the phone last week, after the Oscar nominations were announced. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed his view of what drove Cheney, whether Hollywood stars really are willing to stand up for their beliefs, and how he would make a movie about Trump.
How did you come to the decision to present Cheney as less of an ideological figure than as someone interested in power for its own sake?
The big question is: What drove this guy? There are a lot of people that have a theory that he was actually fairly moderate, and then, after 9/11, he changed. Maybe it was the heart attack that changed him—you hear all kinds of ideas floating around. What I found—and I know there are people who disagree with this—was a surprising lack of ideology. I found beliefs that would flip and flop, based on what was convenient and what was strategically useful, going back to [Donald] Rumsfeld sort of being against the Vietnam War to counteract [Henry] Kissinger’s influence in the Nixon White House, to Cheney and Rumsfeld being hawkish against Russia to counteract Kissinger’s influence. You see that with the Laffer curve, supply-side economics—he’s introduced to it and rolls his eyes at it in the nineteen-seventies, and then you see him later, with Paul O’Neill, in the White House, telling George W. Bush that deficits don’t matter.
I know he hung out with the neocons, and I know that Leo Strauss, and, obviously, Ayn Rand, is a line that runs through a lot of the Republican Party. But to me the big turning point that I found for Cheney was when he was introduced to the unitary executive theory, by a young [Antonin] Scalia, in the seventies, when he [directed] the minority opinion on the Iran-Contra scandal, with David Addington involved. At one point, he even says the President should have certain monarchical prerogatives. I don’t know if I would call the unitary executive an ideology so much as a legal theory, but that pointed even more to the fact that I was watching a guy be transformed by a taste of power.
The historian James Mann, who has written extensively on Cheney, takes issue with a scene in your movie, in which Cheney asks Rumsfeld what they believe, and Rumsfeld laughs uproariously. Mann writes, “It’s a disastrous misreading of the former vice president. By disregarding his views and ideology (and several important historical moments that helped form them), ‘Vice’ suggests that Cheney’s legacy is a soulless quest for power, rather than the advancement of fallacious beliefs that seriously damaged our nation: his unilateral approach to foreign policy, his preference for military force over diplomacy, his considerable overestimation of American strength and his desire to reshape the Middle East.” How would you respond to that?
I would say he’s giving Dick Cheney—and, to some degree, the Republican Party—way too much credit. I think, in a way, it’s playing into a game where you’re getting distracted by the ideological argument as opposed to really looking at the actions. I just don’t see a clear ideological through line. In fact, Cheney’s parents were F.D.R. Democrats, and Cheney was pretty indifferent to politics coming into the University of Wisconsin. He definitely started leaning conservative during those years, when there were protests on campus.
You have a scene where Cheney, after arriving in Washington a half century ago, is unsure whether he wants to work for a Democrat or a Republican.
He initially took his fellowship with a congressman from Wisconsin—what’s his name—[William] Steiger?
Who was a Republican.
Yeah, but a moderate Republican, a very moderate Republican. Cheney had been taken with Rumsfeld, during a fellowship-presentation meeting, and really wanted to work for Rumsfeld, but he had a terrible meeting, so he ended up working for Steiger, who was a moderate and a really good guy, by all accounts. All Cheney kept in the back of his mind was “I got to get with Rumsfeld.” What’s clear is what Cheney’s looking at is ambition. He’s looking at upward movement and charisma. He’s not looking at any sort of ideology.
Donald Rumsfeld’s another guy who, to some degree, defies ideology. There’s tapes of [Richard] Nixon and [H. R.] Haldeman, in the White House, talking about Rumsfeld, about how that guy would throw his mother over to get ahead—and this is Nixon and Haldeman saying that. You talk to anyone about Rumsfeld, they’ll tell you: naked, pure ambition.
I just had a really hard time believing that Dick Cheney was motivated by Leo Strauss in his actions in the Bush White House, I didn’t see any of that. To me, the best example is when he outed [the former C.I.A. officer] Valerie Plame—which, you could say there’s some debate, but come on, let’s be real, we know he did it.
Do we know that?
It almost has a means justify the means kind of quality to it, which is what I really found—
Do we know, for sure, that it was Cheney’s office that outed Valerie Plame?
Like I said, there’s plausible deniability, but let’s be for real. It’s Scooter Libby—he was ordered to leak it, he lied about it—who else would tell him that?
It was Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s guy, who was later found out to have been the source of the early leak.
That’s what they tried to say, but, once again, let’s be for real. Who else would leak it? Scooter Libby is Cheney’s guy; Scooter Libby does what Cheney says. Any reasonable person will tell you, yeah, Cheney almost definitely leaked it. [Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was convicted of lying to investigators about discussing Plame’s identity with reporters. During the investigation, Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel, stated that “there is a cloud over the Vice-President.” Libby maintained his innocence, and President Trump pardoned him, in 2018.]
What I kept seeing was a power-for-the-sake-of-power approach. Even in Cheney’s talking about that time, where we went into Iraq, there’s no regret, there’s almost a feeling of, I got to make the decision, I’m the one who affected history. We know Cheney, first and foremost, is a history buff. I think his dance was more with the notion of history than it was with the writings of a German political philosopher.
Do you mean power for its own sake, power for the United States, or power for rich people or Halliburton? Your movie has all three.
I think it starts with the individual. The interpretation of power—and some people agree with this, and some people don’t agree with this—but I actually feel culturally, in the last ten years, we’ve stopped talking about power as a goal in and of itself and the literal physiological changes that an addiction to power can bring on in a person. That type of quest for power can, what would you say, leak out of the bucket into other areas. Of course, if you’re someone who’s interested in expanding your sphere of influence, of running things, of course you’re going to love an ideology that also positions America in the same way, so long as that exercise in American power emanates from the individual—Dick Cheney in this case.
How much of a challenge was it to balance comedy and seriousness in this movie, and did you have more concerns about doing it here than you did in “The Big Short”?
There are very different motivations for the break in tone we do in “Vice” versus “The Big Short.” In “The Big Short” [which features Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining financial terms], it came out of the practical need to explain these complex financial products—that was it, that simple. We had to do it. We knew we had to do it; the movie couldn’t work without it. In the case of “Vice,” what we’re trying to do is keep the viewer unsettled, because someone like Cheney, who is the consummate bureaucrat, he’s always trying to lull us into a comfortable sort of half attention with his professional tone. Even in his debate with Joe Lieberman, they both sit at a table, and it’s one of the most boring debates you’ll ever watch. I wanted it to pull us out of this comfort—or almost boredom—with a bureaucrat and be constantly showing the effects and all the different sides of what’s going on. At the same time, I wanted it to reflect the times we live in right now, which are both horrifying and completely ludicrous.
It’s also a danger. Collateralized debt obligations caused human suffering, but when you hear a waiter read “enhanced interrogation techniques” off a menu, that’s much more visceral and jarring.
Yeah, well, if you notice, in the film, when we do show the torture, we’re reverent about it. We’re not tongue in cheek. In fact, if anything, the movie goes out of its way to reify the effects of their policy decisions more than, I think, most depictions would. When you see the Iraq War invasion, we actually go to a family under a table, crying. There’s nothing jokey about that whatsoever; that was a horror. There’s a mixture that’s going on.
Speaking of comedy and drama, the Cheney character is not really played for laughs, but Steve Carell as Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as Bush were played for laughs. How did you make that decision, and did you ever worry that they’re acting in two different movies?
I actually think Cheney does have some quite funny moments in the movie. The trick with W. Bush is he is awkward, and—holding the dog and saluting, dancing on “Ellen”—there’s no way around it. I talked with Sam Rockwell a lot about it. To play W. Bush sombre would just be wrong. My take on Rumsfeld, too, is that I’ve never seen a guy tap dance like Rumsfeld. That Errol Morris documentary is the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen—he spends the entire time equivocating through every single question. You look, photos even, going back into the late sixties, seventies, of Rumsfeld doing handstands and putting chopsticks under his nose, like they’re a mustache. He’s an old Navy pilot, and he’s kind of a ridiculous character as well, in my opinion, in his press conferences during the Iraq War. Part of the story is that some of these guys are ridiculous, and Cheney wasn’t as ridiculous. Cheney was much smarter than those guys and had a much more comprehensive understanding of how government works.
Your movie shows a bunch of conservative figures whom we recognize now, like Mike Pence or Roger Ailes, intersecting with Cheney, even though they weren’t hugely important parts of his career. What did you want to show with that?
I would disagree with that premise, that they’re not huge parts of his career. I think Roger Ailes was a massive part of Dick Cheney’s career.
There’s a portrait of Dick Cheney that’s the starting point of the movie, but, very quickly, when you look at the portrait of Dick Cheney, you realize it’s also a portrait of the Republican Party, and clearly Roger Ailes was a major player in the rise of the Republican Party and America swinging more to the right. By having those characters showing up in the background, I wanted to show how the Republican Party was rising, and I thought it was very important to depict the Reagan revolution, because that changed everything for Cheney. I don’t think you end up with W. Bush and Dick Cheney if you don’t have Fox News, if you don’t have a country that swung that hard to the right.
The movie has some shots of people overdosing on opioids, and kids in cages during the child-separation crisis. Cheney doesn’t obviously have anything to do with those things. Why did you include those shots?
The movie’s a portrait of both elements. 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.”
How helpful or not helpful do you think it is to compare Cheney and Trump and to think about them as on some sort of continuum?
I would go with the continuum. I think that’s very helpful. Early on in [promoting and making] this movie, some people asked me to compare them, to say who’s worse. And I answered the question, but really the answer should be they’re both part of an ongoing story, which is the rise of the right in America.
Do you know if Cheney’s seen the movie?
I have not heard that he’s seen it. I’m guessing he won’t watch it. I think what’s going to happen is it will go on cable TV or something at some point, and you’ll get Lynne Cheney watching ten minutes of it, and you’ll hear a burst of anger from that side of the world. The one I’m really curious about is Mary Cheney. She’d be the one who might.
Do you have any heartwarming cliché story about where you were when you found out you were nominated for three Oscars?
No, nothing too unusual.
You were with your family, and you were all holding hands.
I was with Jeff Sessions, and we were eating scrambled eggs together. No, we were at the house. Actually, the heartwarming part is my thirteen-year-old daughter was sitting next to me, and we were quite thrilled. This has obviously been a controversial movie, so, when it comes to that kind of thing, we to some degree had no idea what to expect.
What do you think the state of politics in Hollywood is? I know that is a big question, but it seems to me that, at one level, Hollywood is as active as it’s ever been—there’s been speaking out about #MeToo stuff. There’s obviously tremendous resistance to President Trump. At the same time, The New Yorker ran a Profile of Mark Burnett, the Hollywood producer who’s partially responsible for Trump, and it doesn’t seem like there’s been a ton of industry pushback against him. Rupert Murdoch always had a huge role in Hollywood and is also responsible for FoxNews. It doesn’t seem like there’s been a ton of pushback from liberals in the industry against him. Do you wish that people were making bolder decisions to speak out for what they believed in?
It’s such a great question. For years, we wouldn’t work at Fox because of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. They finally did that sale and splintered off Fox News.
“We” being you and Will Ferrell?
I never would make a decision for Will Ferrell, but I personally wouldn’t and was pretty open about it. Then, finally, they started doing that sale, and we did a short-lived show for them a year ago. Now they’ve finally separated, so I would work with them. It’s a very tricky thing. It’s hard to have these monolithic corporations. I worked at “Saturday Night Live,” which was owned by G.E. at the time, who was making weapons. It’s kind of like life in America. You’re always going to bump into a monolithic corporation at some point.
Let me go to the other side of your question. I think, actually, what’s going on in Hollywood is what’s going on with the left wing in general, across the country, which is a fissure. You see it played out in social media, where it’s this Bernie versus Hillary, Ocasio-Cortez versus Aaron Sorkin kind of thing that’s happening between the corporate Dems and the progressive Dems. I think that’s more the thing I’m seeing here, in Hollywood, where there’s a long tradition of people supporting corporate Democrats and having big, fat fund-raisers for them. You’re starting to see a little bit of a fissure. I’m starting to hear some people say, “I won’t go to those twenty-thousand-dollar-per-plate dinners anymore, I will only give individual contributions.”
Yeah. When Sorkin alluded to the fact that A.O.C.—let’s face it, that’s who he was talking about—needs to grow up, that sent ripples around Los Angeles. There were a lot of divided responses about that.
What was your response?
I disagree with him. I respectfully disagree with him, because I think he’s really talented; he’s done incredible work. I think Ocasio-Cortez is an incredible fresh voice, and I think the things she’s talking about are actually moderate. I think the idea of a seventy-per-cent tax rate for people making about ten million is almost conservative, especially considering the tax rate used to be ninety per cent [on top earners] during the Eisenhower era.
I think the other thing about Los Angeles that’s downplayed is there are a lot of conservatives. People really downplay that, i.e., Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, and Burnett, and a lot of other people.
I think you mean “e.g.,” Adam, not “i.e.”
I thought it was “in example,” “example given”?
I think “e.g.” is for example.
Have I been doing that wrong for twenty-five years?
Yeah, I think it’s “e.g.” But, hey, you know what, you just got nominated for three Oscars, so who cares what I think?
I appreciate it.
I love Alec Baldwin, but I have not enjoyed his Trump. It’s what I see every day on the news, and so it just doesn’t interest me. I’m wondering what you think, whether you would ever be interested in doing a Trump movie, and what you think the challenges of one would be.
Really, really hard thing to do. I think, in a way, the mistake we’re all making is even paying attention to Trump. It’s hard not to, don’t get me wrong. The only thing that I know about a Trump movie is if I did it, and I really mean this, it would be animated. I don’t mean child animation, I mean more like Ralph Steadman-type animation, or Charles Burns-type animation, somewhere in that area. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d do a Trump movie.
Yeah, it’s brutal.
It’s brutal. Trump just seems like one of the most powerless people I’ve ever seen, and it feels like the story’s really not about him in any way, shape, or form. The analogy I always give is that someone cracked the safe in a jewelry store, stole all the jewels, and walked out and left the front door open, and then a dog came in and pissed on the carpet, and we’re yelling at the dog about pissing on the carpet.
Iranians can’t visit their kids who are working in America, and kids at the border are being separated. I don’t think those things would be going on with another President.
No, I don’t mean to minimize any of that. What I’m saying is it’s like there’s no one behind the wheel. The car’s swerving left and right, and it’s hurting people. I’m not downplaying any of that, but I’m angrier at Stephen Miller. But then, once I’m angry at Stephen Miller, I’m angrier at Mitch McConnell. Then, once I’m angry at Mitch McConnell, I just don’t know if there’s a person you can point the finger at with all this stuff. You get into gestalt stuff, and you just start talking about what happened to the Republican Party, and how we got here. You know what I’m basically saying, in a really long-winded, boring way? I don’t know.
I think what you mean to say after that long-winded answer is “i.e., I don’t know.”
I can’t believe I’ve been saying that incorrectly for twenty-five years.