So, no, writer/director Adam McKay doesn’t promise that every conversation in “Vice” (in theaters Christmas Day) happened verbatim. But he does claim some of them did, that he read every book by and about the Cheneys he could, that he hired a journalist to corroborate his script with off-the-record reporting, and that, as a disclaimer at the start of “Vice” reads, “we did our (expletive) best.”
“The amount of bread crumbs that are left aren’t even crumbs,” says McKay of the former vice president, whose autobiography doesn't disclose much. “And I’m not even sure there was a trail the bread crumbs were left on.”
No matter, the film manages to cover six decades in the life of Cheney (played by an unrecognizable Christian Bale) as it jumps throughout history, a false ending, iambic pentameter and direct-to-camera speeches by Cheney and an unnamed narrator.
“We really did our best to present these people as people. We really did our best to be accurate with the historic timeline," McKay says. "And we really think it’s an incredible story that, regardless of your political leanings, is about power and family and America.
“Does that mean that some fringe (media outlets) won’t go after the movie? Of course not.”
“Vice” draws a bold line that connects Cheney to the proliferation of conservative news, heightened brutality of interrogation techniques, creation of ISIS and the constitutional interpretation that says the president’s actions are always legal by definition (the unitary executive theory). Already, the film has been called out for the way it deals with the death of Lynne Cheney’s mom, but key elements of the story are based in fact, including these:
Dick Cheney had unprecedented power.
Widely considered the most powerful vice president ever, Cheney was a political insider and Halliburton CEO who placed loyalists in government, set up Guantanamo Bay detention camp, authorized shooting down planes on 9/11 and made controversial use of intelligence to justify an invasion into Iraq. These are all depicted onscreen.
He got DUIs and flunked out of Yale.
Cheney got two DUIs while a college student at Yale, before dropping out and ultimately getting his B.A. at the University of Wyoming. There’s no way to know if Cheney’s hardcore partying lived up to the depiction of it in "Vice," where he’s seen punching someone and is called a “dirtbag.”
The real Cheney was indeed caught driving under the influence, and did get a harsh talking to by then-girlfriend, now-wife Lynne before turning things around. This kick-in-the-butt conversation is imagined in "Vice."
He's suffered numerous heart attacks.
In the film, Cheney’s heart attacks are so frequent, they seem played for laughs. He's prepared to die, but is saved by a heart transplant. In reality, Cheney has indeed survived five heart attacks and was convinced he was going to die in 2010. He got a heart transplant in 2012.
He stood up for his gay daughter, then let her down.
“Vice” depicts Cheney as a conservative who, upon learning that his daughter Mary is a lesbian, immediately supports her and gay marriage. From all appearances, that happened in real life, too.
The topic of gay marriage becomes a family issue onscreen when Cheney’s other daughter, Liz, opposes it in her congressional run. That's not embellished for dramatic effect.
The real Cheneys have indeed had public tensions around this issue during Liz's campaign, with Mary airing grievances with her sister on Facebook, and the Cheney parents publicly supporting Liz. Liz is now a member of the House of Representatives.
He said a lot of that stuff.
Cheney’s final monologue to camera, where he justifies his bullish behavior, consists of “all quotes taken from Cheney,” McKay promises. When movie Cheney responds on ABC News to the statement that “two-thirds of Americans say (the Iraq war) is not worth fighting,” he uses real Cheney’s word: “So?”
And the movie uses authentic news footage of Harry Whittington, the man Cheney accidentally shot while quail hunting. Whittington is seen apologizing to his shooter for what “(Cheney) and his family had to go through.”