Dick Cheney’s story is a necessary reminder that actions have consequences – no matter how unaccountable a politician may feel.
There’s a brilliant, disturbing scene in Adam McKay’s new film Vice, in which George W. Bush (played by Sam Rockwell) is shown addressing the nation from his White House desk ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The camera pans down to show Bush’s leg nervously twitching beneath the table, as though the cataclysmic nature of his plan is reverberating through his entire body.
At this point it cuts to a night-time scene in a Baghdad home, as US-led forces begin their ‘shock and awe’ bombing raids in the city, and people are seen huddling beneath a table in terror. As bombs land with merciless ferocity nearby, the leg of one of the cowering people is shown desperately twitching, just like Bush.
It’s an effective sequence because it brings texture and realism to a direct consequence of a political decision – something rarely seen in film or TV.
Often depictions of powerful people offer an interpretation of how decisions are made (the personalities and politicking that drive behaviour) but we don’t see the impact of these decisions in real world scenarios. The ‘palace intrigue’ is usually the element deemed most worthy of attention, not the physical and psychological trauma of civilian victims, which McKay conveys with real heft.
The same is often true in the news media, as politicians and political drama are foregrounded at the expense of giving due attention to the actual consequences. This has led to a weird state of apathy and inertia among much of the general public, who are closed off from the realities of what’s happening in the world by media outlets acting more like reality TV entertainment.
As Vice’s writer and director, McKay doesn’t shy away from the consequences, precisely because the film is an exploration of what happens when politicians hold too much power with too little accountability. ‘Vice’ is Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale), Bush’s vice-president who oversaw a huge power grab on behalf of the executive branch of government, and who was a key figure in the Iraq invasion.
Another similarly powerful scene shows Cheney going through intelligence briefings in the White House before casually informing his military liaison to detain a suspected terrorist on the basis of a whim.
It then cuts to a man being bundled into the back of a van by CIA operatives, his wrists sharply bound by plastic ties as he is driven off to an unknown location – the state-sponsored abduction practice known as rendition. As with the ‘shock and awe’ scene, the terror is shown in all of its brutal reality, providing an effective counterweight to Cheney’s distant, irresponsible diktats in Washington.
The film hints at the fact that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Cheney. In an earlier scene, which shows a young Dick in his first role as an intern working for Donald Rumsfeld during the Nixon administration, the pair marvel at the fact that the president can extend the Vietnam War by bombing Cambodia at his discretion. Again, the film immediately shows what the grim consequences of this actually look like for a Cambodian village.
The message is that the office of President of the United States is imbued with such power by those who occupy and directly surround it, that it has immunity to do whatever it wants without repercussion, or even full understanding of the consequences.
This lack of accountability among the most powerful could be applied to many other examples, including today’s politics. In the UK, for example, the willingness of many Brexit-supporting politicians to knowingly back policies that could lead the country to economic ruin, or destroy the peace in Northern Ireland, is a sign of their remoteness and unwillingness to acknowledge the true, real world consequences of their actions.
Or look at how the UK and US administrations supply arms to a regime like Saudi Arabia, helping to escalate the catastrophic war in Yemen, while those same administrations act as though they have little knowledge of, or responsibility for, the carnage.
It’s important to look back in order to understand the present, and Vice is a timely reminder of not just the consequences of unchecked power – but of how the true scale of those consequences is too often ignored by politicians and the public alike.