If you saw last year's financial satire The Big Short, you're already a bit familiar with #AdamMcKay's unique approach to historical events. From Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages in her bathtub to eye-opening performances by Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling, The Big Short took an unforgiving look at the banks that fueled the burst of the housing bubble — and the global financial crisis of 2008.
Now, the director is set to direct a biopic of Dick Cheney, vice president to George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. Called "the most powerful vice president in American history" by some, he was also frequently compared to Darth Vader — a moniker he deemed "an honor" in 2011. And it looks like he deserves it: In the years since the end of his tenure, new information about Cheney's power and his enormous influence over Bush has revealed just how much of that administration's heritage he was responsible for.
Unfortunately, we're not talking about a positive kind of heritage, like when you discover that your grandparents secretly owned a castle all along — at the tip of this dark and explosive iceberg, you'll find the words "waterboarding," "NSA" and "Iraq." So while it'd pointless to attempt to sum up the entirety of Cheney's long relationship with power, here are some of the best known and chilling initiatives he took on during his time within the American government. This is going to be a tense movie, to say the least.
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The War In Iraq, Or How Cheney Turned Hypotheses Into Facts
In a 2007 article titled "The People Vs. Dick Cheney" — which is less a piece of journalism than an accusation — Wil S. Hylton writes how Cheney was aware of the uncertainty surrounding the presence of nuclear weapons in Iraq, yet decided to tell the American public said presence had been confirmed, and used this supposed fact as an argument to launch the war against Iraq.
During the several months preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and thereafter, the vice president became aware that no certain evidence existed of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. [...] Despite these questions and uncertainties, and having full awareness of them, the vice president nevertheless proceeded to misrepresent the facts in his public statements, claiming that there was no doubt about the existence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and that a full-scale nuclear program was known to exist.
Contrary to Cheney, Hylton provides proof for his arguments, which I'll let you read in detail here. The consequences of this blind conviction to move forward with an attack on Iraq range from acceptable to disastrous depending on who you're asking, but what's certain is that the debut of this war on terror was far more messy and inefficient than the finger-wagging lesson it had intended to be.
Waterboarding Is Torture
In the follow-up to 9/11 and the war on terror, one term stood out in the media: waterboarding. Though we'd have loved to believe it was a new kind of surfing technique, waterboarding is a torture technique that consists of putting a bag on a person's head, strapping them to a board, and repeatedly pushing the board down in water that will progressively fill the person's lungs. The technique was used in particular on Guantanamo detainees suspected of terrorism.
In December 2008, the LA Times reported that Cheney, after years of supporting the use of waterboarding, had finally admitted that he was behind the development of the measure:
Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that he was directly involved in approving severe interrogation methods used by the CIA, and that the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should remain open indefinitely. [...] Cheney's comments also mark the first time that he has acknowledged playing a central role in clearing the CIA's use of an array of controversial interrogation tactics, including a simulated drowning method known as waterboarding.
"I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared," Cheney said in an interview with ABC News.
Asked whether he still believes it was appropriate to use the waterboarding method on terrorism suspects, Cheney said: "I do."
Though what's even more shocking is that Cheney doesn't consider waterboarding to be torture, and feels like the definition of the method isn't even relevant in the context of the war on terror. So to prove him and other advocates wrong, journalist Christopher Hitchens decided to undergo the procedure himself.
And while he recognizes that, "I knew I could stop the process at any time, and that when it was all over I would be released into happy daylight rather than returned to a darkened cell," his conclusion on waterboarding is that it's anything but an illusion:
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it "simulates" the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning — or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The "board" is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.
I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
Americans Can Thank Cheney For Being Monitored By The NSA
Did Cheney's ruthless tactics only apply when he was fighting the enemy of the United States? Of course not. He was one of the masterminds behind the Terrorist Surveillance Program, a plan to have the NSA listen in on the phone calls and emails of millions of US citizens. Bush then approved it, and it took two years for the Justice Department to deem it partly illegal.
From The Government To The Private Sector... And Back
Of all of Cheney's sleazy moves, one we know is going to be in McKay's film is his transition from the private sector to the public one, when he went from being CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000 to becoming vice president. Before that, he was Secretary of Defense, and his change of sector from a governmental position to the head of a Fortune 500 company has raised many issues around conflicts of interest. As the New Yorker wrote in 2004:
The United States had concluded that Iraq, Libya, and Iran supported terrorism and had imposed strict sanctions on them. Yet during Cheney's tenure at Halliburton the company did business in all three countries.
Cheney had virtually no business experience before becoming the boss of Hamilton, but the wealth of his connections meant he could keep the business running in even the most frowned-upon places.
'I Don't Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About My Faults'
What's perhaps going to be most fascinating about the movie, however, is getting a sense of Cheney's personality and his stubborn refusal to ever question himself. In 2013, R.J. Cutler released the documentary The World According to Dick Cheney, based for the most part on an interview with the former vice president. And he's quite straightforward about his attitude toward the past:
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my faults."
This absence of self-perception baffled a reviewer for the LA Times:
By the time the film reaches its climax during the post-9/11 Bush administration, Cheney's air of quiet confidence is so clearly inappropriate that it looks like cognitive disassociation. It is just not possible that an intelligent man could look back on the life he lived without some sense of, if not regret, at least reconsideration.
She's not the only one to have noticed this defining trait of Cheney's, as Mark Danner shared a similar opinion when he wrote his own take on the documentary for the New York Review of Books:
No turning back would be a good slogan for Dick Cheney. His memoirs are remarkable [...] for an almost perfect lack of second-guessing, regret, or even the mildest reconsideration.
Yet lack of regret, refusal to reconsider, doesn't alter the train of cause and effect; certainty that decisions were right, no matter how powerful —and the imperturbable perfection of Cheney's certainty is nothing short of dazzling— cannot obscure evidence that they were wrong. Often the sheer unpopularity of a given course seems to offer to Cheney its own satisfaction, a token of his disinterestedness, as if the lack of political support must serve as a testament to the purity of his motives. "Cheney is an anti-politician," remarks Barton Gellman, author of the brilliant study of Cheney's vice-presidency, 'Angler.' "But no president can be an anti-politician. No president can govern that way."
It's the kind of observation that explains why Cheney's approval rating in public polls was at 13% shortly before he left office in December 2007.
Would you watch a movie about Dick Cheney? Who would you cast?