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'Vice' Traces Dick Cheney's Ascent From Yale Dropout To Political Power Player37:14

Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in <em>Vice</em>. The film, which was written and directed by Adam McKay, has been nominated for six Golden Globe Awards. (Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)
Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in Vice. The film, which was written and directed by Adam McKay, has been nominated for six Golden Globe Awards. (Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

Former Vice President Dick Cheney was the quintessential behind-the-scenes political power player. "He really has no signature speech — there's no great Dick Cheney moment where he was in front of a pulpit delivering a great line," says filmmaker Adam McKay. "He's always kind of just been in the background."

McKay aims to bring the powerful former vice president into the foreground in his new film, Vice, a dark comedy starring Christian Bale. The movie combines the work of investigative journalists with some speculation and comedy (McKay also directed Anchorman and The Big Short) to tell the story of Cheney's ascent from Yale dropout to West Wing operative under former President George W. Bush.

"I think a lot of the ways that people like Cheney have gained power is that they rely on us being bored. They rely on us looking at what they do and assuming that it's just bureaucracy and who cares?" McKay says. But "when you really dig into it, it's very exciting stuff. And it's major stuff that changes the world."

Interview highlights

On Cheney's legacy

The biggest thing he did was by going to war [in Iraq] , and then in the end [it] turned out the intelligence was bogus, which I think [whether] you're right-wing or left-wing, I think you have to agree that was the case, and how America just moved on from that. I think at that point we started to get comfortable with the fact that our government wasn't entirely working for us, and that there were agendas inside our government that didn't represent the will of the people.

So I think in an abstract sense, he changed the way we view government, but then, in a very tangible sense — I mean, let's face it — the Middle East became completely destabilized. You had the rise of ISIS. They tripled the debt, and then obviously the world economy collapsed. And they were really the first administration who nakedly put lobbyists and corporate insiders in regulatory jobs.

On a turning point in Cheney's life, after he dropped out of Yale, when he moved back to Wyoming and stopped drinking because of his girlfriend, Lynne, who later became his wife

He was working as a [power] lineman in Wyoming. We're talking the early '60s. That's a tough, tough town, a tough state to work in, and what would happen is they would work on the lines all day. They would climb up and put up the power ... and then at night they would go out and they would drink, like old-fashioned, 19th century drinking. He got a couple DUIs. ...

He loved Lynne Vincent from the second he saw her. ... He was crazy about her. [After she confronted him about his drinking,] he white-knuckled it. ... He stopped going into town at night and he stayed in this little crappy trailer with an old World War I veteran, and he would sit there and they would eat, like, canned tuna fish and Dick would ask him stories about World War I, and that's how he stopped getting into trouble and then eventually got back into college.

On the musical number cut from the movie

It was so good. We had Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes. We had the choreographer of Hamilton. We had Christian Bale and [Steve] Carell. ... It was amazing. It just tonewise and storywise did not work in that part of the film, and we tried and tried and tried. It almost worked. I've had a little pang recently, "Man, maybe I should have just left that in there," but the good news is, it will be out ... when the release of the movie happens and streaming and DVD and all that kind of stuff, and it really is tremendous.

Director Adam McKay (from left), actor Christian Bale, producer Kevin Messick and cinematographer Greig Fraser discuss a scene on the set of Vice. (Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures)

On Cheney's heart issues

At one point he had ... basically a little jump-starter in his heart so when he would have a heart attack it would give his heart a kick to keep it alive and it had like a little computer in it. ...

I think he had five heart attacks, but if you count the transplant [in 2012], if you count the device they put in ... it's kind of hard to calculate, but during the 1970s when he was working in the Ford administration, the youngest chief of staff in history, he was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and eating a dozen doughnuts every day, so clearly not treating his heart that well.

On McKay's own recent heart attack

We had just finished filming, I think we had wrapped for about a week, and ... I just realized I was not in the best shape. I put on weight during the movie. I was foolish enough to continue smoking ... and I didn't feel good. ...

I was working out with my trainer and in the middle of it my hands started tingling and my stomach felt queasy. Those aren't normally symptoms you think of with a heart attack. You usually think of pain in the chest, in the arm. So I told my trainer, "I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm just tired. This is just weird." And he left, and as soon as he left I remembered the heart attack scene we shot with Bale when [Cheney] was running for Congress in Wyoming in the late '70s and Bale asked me, "How do you want to do the heart attack? Do you want it to be a pain in the arm? The chest?" He goes, "I could also do the queasy stomach. That's really common." ...

And so that moment just [flashed back] to me while I was sitting on the couch and I went, "Holy Lord!" and I ran upstairs ... and I just downed four baby aspirin and called 911. ... The doctor said, "Because you acted so quickly you have no damage to your heart." ... So I called Christian Bale a week later and I said, "Either you or Dick Cheney just saved my life."

On how that experience changed him

I definitely started talking to [Will] Ferrell about maybe we have to get back in the saddle again and do a big old comedy, because there's just no better way to spend your life than, like, laughing every single day.

Director Adam McKay

When I came out of the heart attack, I just had the biggest, dumbest smile on my face for like a week, where I could not stop joking around. I was so happy to be alive and what it does is it — for me, personally — just reaffirms what you care about and there's a lot of things I love in life, but one of the things I love in life is laughing — laughing really hard. ...

It did make me miss the comedy, I got to be honest. It did make me feel that like, maybe there's something to be said about if you can come up with a raucously funny movie that there's just something about that's just undeniable. So I definitely started talking to [Will] Ferrell about maybe we have to get back in the saddle again and do another big old comedy, because there's just no better way to spend your life than, like, laughing every single day.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright NPR 2020.


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