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Queerness is the impetus for Cheney's humanization and damnation in 'Vice'

February 24, 2019

This year, a record number of LGBTQ-inclusive films were nominated for the coveted Best Picture Award at the 2019 Academy Awards. Over half of the films nominated — among them The Favourite, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, Green Book, Vice — include LGBTQ characters or plotlines. While some were standout (The Favourite tied Caberet for most Oscar nominations (10) for an LGBTQ inclusive film in the history of the Academy) others were more subtle. Vice was one of the more subtle films, to the extent that it originally wasn’t included on various write-up of LGBTQ-inclusive Best Picture nominations.

Vice is a biographical comedy-drama by Adam McKay (The Big Short) that follows Vice President Richard (Dick) Cheney’s rise to the most powerful Vice Presidency in history. A biopic comedy, starring Christian Bale as Cheney (who won a Best Actor award for the role at the Golden Globes), the film tracks Cheney from his beginnings as a White House intern under Donald Rumsfeld through to his tenure as Vice President. It’s worth noting that the film is not necessarily historically accurate and should not be taken as such.

In Vice, Cheney’s daughter, Mary, comes out to him and her mother (Lynne) following a messy break-up with her high-school girlfriend. For those unfamiliar with Cheney and his stance on marriage equality, he believed it was a state issue and according to The Washington Post stated that “People… ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.” With this context in mind, Cheney and Lynne’s, support of their daughter in the film was unsurprising.

Cheney’s relationship with his daughter and his support of her sexuality is a major humanizing factor, especially amidst McKay’s unflinching staging of Cheney’s power grabs. As the fictional Cheney considers a presidential bid and eventually joins George H.W.’s Presidential ticket, he weighs the impact on his daughter and what it will mean if her queer identity is thrust into the spotlight of the Republican Party.

It’s almost touching, and certain bits (in particular Mary’s coming out) are particularly relatable. This, however, was my biggest reservation prior to watching Vice realized: I didn’t want to see a sympathetic portrayal of Cheney. I was young — too young to remember — when Cheney was Vice President. Events featured in the film like then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 speech to the United Nations or even the attacks of September 11th, 2001 hold little emotional resonance to me. I am not, however, too young to be aware of the integral role Cheney played in the killing of civilians, the torture of prisoners and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. I didn’t want to sympathize with Dick Cheney, but McKay leverages Cheney’s desire to protect Mary as the film’s most powerful humanizing force.

However, this eventually devolves into the final nail in Cheney’s coffin — not literally, as he manages to avoid death after a particularly heavy-handed heart transplant sequence in which Cheney is literally heartless for a brief moment. Ultimately, his instrumental role in the War on Terror isn’t the final blow. Rather, McKay depicts Cheney as the one who gave his other daughter, Liz, the go-ahead to take a public stance against same-sex marriage during her 2013 Wyoming Senate race. Liz’s decision to publicly denounce marriage equality ultimately caused a rift to form between the two sisters. It’s not confirmed that Cheney green-lit the action in real life as he explicitly does in the film; rather, following the incident, he and his wife Lynne stated that, “Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.”

McKay is clear that his version of Cheney’s chief (and perhaps only) redeeming quality is his commitment to his family. When Cheney proves willing to sacrifice even that in the name of power, he fully transforms into the “heartless” monster that McKay has been building towards the entire film. While there are plenty of reasons Cheney is staged as an irredeemable character — his involvement in the Iraq War, his authorization of torture or his illegal spying activity are just a few — it’s ultimately his willingness to burn a bridge with his daughter that is his final damnation.

Palmer Haasch is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities studying English and Political Science with minors in French Studies and GLBT Studies. She served as an Entertainment Media Intern at GLAAD and is now a weekly columnist for the Minnesota Daily. Palmer serves as a Lead Junior Editor for GLAAD"s digital platform, amp.

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