History and popular movies are often awkward partners and the point is made especially clear when we consider Vice, the current film about Dick Cheney, the 46th American vice-president, who served alongside president George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009.
Cheney was the most powerful V-P in American history, and at the centre of a first-class human drama. Having risen as a Republican through the executive ranks in Washington, he was the overseer of foreign policy after the 9/11 Twin Towers atrocity in New York when the United States made war on Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Vice we watch Cheney (brilliantly and persuasively recreated by Christian Bale) organizing the Americans as they face, in terror, conflicts with new enemies in mysterious parts of the world.
All this is painful. First of all, most of the audience knows, only too well, how everything will turn out. We know that Iraq, when conquered, will not transform itself into the democracy the Americans hoped to create; it will become an arena of angry, chaotic violence. The Iraqis will curse their American saviours as imperialists. And we know that the fighting in Afghanistan is equally hopeless. In January 2019, after two decades, the West will still be losing soldiers to the apparently unbeatable Taliban and will contemplate withdrawing completely.
It's painful for me in a personal way. Like many, I saw virtue in the position taken by the Americans, and said so in public. I was wrong. The Iraq war was mismanaged. The U.S. had no idea why it was being fought, and kept pouring soldiers and machinery into it, with dubious results. Like many others, I soon found my enthusiasm waning.
Vice, while sometimes amusing, proves equally disappointing. Adam McKay, who wrote and directed it, takes many liberties with the subject of Cheney -- takes so many, in fact, that it would be reasonable to label his film a work of fiction.
A large file of research has gone into his script, but there's apparently just as much speculation and imagination. McKay puts hundreds of words in the mouths of his characters, Cheney above all. When Cheney fights with his wife, McKay puts the audience in the room. When Cheney outlines to George W. Bush the terms he will accept if he runs for vice-president, we are privileged to hear all the details. In many cases we are included when Cheney is thinking private thoughts.
Dealing with history, McKay is the reverse of an academic historian. He's not one of those footnote-obsessed pedants who refuse to print a fact if he's unsure it's right. He's a free-and-easy, let-it-run moviemaker who wants above all to keep his narrative moving. And at no point does he inform the audience that a lot of this stuff is made up. Naive ticket buyers will have to accept that McKay knows the motivations of all his characters and shows us that they are always personally useful, shortsighted or just egocentric. Well, he's in charge of the movie, after all.
McKay honed his technique during two seasons he was head writer on Saturday Night Live, where writing fictional dialogue for real people is standard practice.
Apparently McKay never lets the word "impartial" crawl across his brain pan. That's another way he departs from a historian. He hardly ever allows anyone to speak well of Cheney. He depicts his main character as a desperately ambitious politician who sees the future of America and the West as his main chance to acquire power and fame. The film wallows in that opinion and has no time for any other.