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I’m Not Ready to Laugh About the Bush Years

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘Vice’

There’s a specific tenor to smug laughter that’s different than any other kind of laugh. People laugh for all kinds of reasons, but the smug laugh is easily the most insufferable expression of enjoyment. If you’re not familiar with what smug laughter sounds like, you just need to buy a ticket to Vice, the new movie from Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay, about former Vice President Dick Cheney. I saw the movie at an early screening, before just about anyone had laid eyes on this political satire, and I was in a packed house of people ready to laugh at all the right things. In other words, the room was filled with smug laughter, which was annoying enough. Even more irritating is that the movie is actively bad. The smug laughter just amplified the badness — and was, in some ways, symptomatic of why Vice is such a failure.

The movie has been made much in the same way as McKay’s previous film, The Big Short. That takedown of Wall Street was an all-guns-blazing comedy with a sharp irreverent streak. Banking terminology too arcane for the average viewer to understand? No problem: McKay put Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain the minutiae. The Big Short, which was very entertaining, condemned greed and moral bankruptcy at a time when a lot of people were still hurting from the 2008 economic downturn. I never call movies “important,” but The Big Short was a balm, and its snotty, righteous indignation felt therapeutic.

No doubt McKay, who made his name directing and co-writing films with Will Ferrell like Anchorman and Step Brothers, intends Vice to do something similar for the Bush years. The movie adopts the popularly held theory (at least on the left) that Cheney (played by Christian Bale) was the true evil mastermind behind the administration, the oily politician respectfully patronizing actual president George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) while secretly running the show himself. Vice makes The Big Short seem restrained by comparison: Everything from an unconventional narrator to unexpected digressions pop up throughout the film, as if McKay wants to ensure that we’re never bored and that we’re always aware how mad he is at these guys. “I’m suspicious of anything that feels like an old form,” McKay recently said of his film’s gonzo style. “We’re discovering new styles and forms, because this era we’re in demands it. The world has gotten so cartoonishly exaggerated and over-the-top. Why be subtle anymore?”

Subtlety isn’t Vice’s problem — I could tell just by gauging the response of the crowd I was with. I live in L.A., which you might have heard is a pretty liberal place. That’s even truer of the audience that would attend the premiere screening of a Dick Cheney satire. And in most regards, I’m aligned with these people politically. But while watching Vice, and absorbing all the smug laughter around me, I was reminded of one area in which I diverge. I despised the Bush administration and what they wrought, but I don’t feel particularly proud of that stance. Frankly, I’m still too angry about those years — I’m not ready to laugh about them, even if Vice’s comedy is meant to be vitriolic. To me, smug laughter is akin to congratulating oneself. And I don’t think any of us are close to deserving of being congratulated for what we went through.

Vice isn’t interested in dissecting what made people like Bush, Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) such disastrous individuals to run the country at a time of great crisis. Instead, the movie goes for cheap jokes. Don’t worry: Vice will definitely bring up the fact that, oh man, Cheney shot that dude in the face! And remember all of Cheney’s heart problems?!? And, man, Bush — wasn’t he an idiot?!? And so on and so forth. The performances lean heavily on what’s most recognizable about the person. (Carell nails Rummy’s constant peevishness pretty terrifically.) But these aren’t well-drawn characters whose monstrous qualities are explored and scrutinized — they’re cartoons we get to mock.

I suppose that’s comforting for some people. Certainly it was true of my audience, who laughed at every bit of caricature put on the screen. In theory, such broad, snarky comedy serves as a way of knocking powerful people off their pedestal, bringing them back down to earth. But for that to really work, there needs to be some underlying truth to the satire — something elemental about the comedy that speaks to what the Bush years were like. That’s what Vice doesn’t have. Mostly, it reassures viewers that we’re right — Bush’s team really was a bunch of jerks!

But why do we need such reassurance? What does it help? When I walk around during my day, beset with my issues and hang-ups, I’m not spending a single second wondering, “Yeah, but why doesn’t anyone realize that Bush was a calamitous president??!? And that Cheney guy! What a dick!!” By this late date, if those things aren’t self-evident, then clearly you’re someone who loved that administration — and there’s probably no way to convince you otherwise. So if Vice isn’t meant to change minds, I guess it’s here to reaffirm our own beliefs. This is a bad reason to see movies — and an even worse reason for making them. Not every film should shake your core beliefs, but one that just wants to flatter your worldview seems like a massive waste of time.

Plus, the laughter that Vice elicits feels antithetical to the change McKay would presumably want to see in the world. Laughing at the Bush years won’t erase them — if anything, it reduces them to a joke. Well, they weren’t funny. And being reminded that I was correct for hating that president is scant consolation. Smug laughter is too close to complacent laughter. The right didn’t rise to power by telling a bunch of jokes — they got angry. I’m not advocating everyone on the left become a rage monster to compensate. But I sure as hell wished we’d stop patting ourselves on the back for doing clever impressions of our political opponents.

Here are three other takeaways from Vice. (Warning: There will be SPOILERS.)

#1. Watch these Bush-era movies instead.

What’s especially galling about Vice is that it acts as if no one has made a movie about Bush or the Iraq War before. Well, other people have — and those films are far superior.

On the fiction side, there’s W.Oliver Stone’s underrated portrait of Dubya, played by Josh Brolin. It’s far funnier than Vice, but it’s also more insightful and curious about these characters, trying to figure out exactly how they led the nation into disaster.

But I’d like to turn your attention to two documentaries that feel like definitive snapshots of what those years were like. The first is 2007’s No End in Sight, which was directed by Charles Ferguson, who earned his Ph.D. in political science from MIT before transitioning into filmmaking. (A few years later, he’d win an Oscar for his documentary Inside Job, about the 2008 financial collapse.) No End in Sight is a calm, journalistic exploration of all the mistakes made in the buildup to the Iraq War — as well as the calamities that occurred after “Mission Accomplished.” I interviewed Ferguson around the film’s release, and he told me, “I hope that the mood of the country now is such that people will be willing to sit through a film that, while I hope is interesting and compelling, isn’t entertaining or ‘fun.’” Indeed, this is a sober, damning documentary — and the damage we’ve done to the Middle East is still being felt all these years later.

I also really like The Unknown Known, a 2013 profile of Donald Rumsfeld by Thin Blue Line director Errol Morris. Many were disappointed that Morris (who won an Oscar for his documentary about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War) couldn’t get the famously inscrutable former Secretary of Defense to crack. But that’s not the point: The Unknown Known is about blind arrogance — and how that unearned confidence helped doom the country once we invaded Iraq. Few documentaries have enraged me more than this one. Every second that Steve Carell was on screen during Vice, I kept thinking about The Unknown Known, which is a far more scathing portrait of the man.

#2. What’s the greatest anti-Bush song?

When terrible Republican presidents get elected, liberals try to console themselves with the idea that great art often comes out of great darkness. (Remember all those epochal movies and songs during the Watergate era?) I’m a little suspicious of that silver lining — personally, I’d rather have peaceful times and mediocre films — but while watching Vice, I started thinking back to the protest art that sprung up during the Bush years. Green Day’s concept album American Idiot wasn’t bad and, yeah, Kanye West going on national television to say that the president doesn’t care about black people was pretty historic. But, to my mind, one song stands above everything else in terms of channeling the anger of the age. I’m betting, though, you’ve never heard it before.

Todd Snider is a country(ish) singer-songwriter who often tells stories about downtrodden individuals. He’s battled addiction and depression, and the plainspoken honesty of his music articulates the desperation of people living on the margins. But on 2006’s The Devil You Know, he decided to switch things up for the folk-y “You Got Away With It,” assuming the voice of a prep-school frat boy looking back on his younger, wilder years.

Pretty soon, though, it becomes clear that this tale isn’t fiction. The narrator keeps addressing his friend, never by name, and mentions all the partying and mischief they used to get into. But the friend always gets away scot-free. Here’s the chorus…

You got away with it
You got away
You get away with
The things that you say
I worry forever
Never for you
You’ll get away with it
You always do

Near the end of “You Got Away With It,” the narrator marvels at how much his fuck-up friend has turned his life around in adulthood — and the identity of the unnamed buddy suddenly becomes obvious…

You never did tell me what happened with you
And your brother down there in Florida
I heard they gave you a hell of a time
Everybody around here was afraid you might lose
I told them not to worry ‘cause I knew you’d be fine
Had me out here to Camp David a few times over the years
I think the first time we were teenagers sneakin’ beers
Look at you now, you old son of a bitch
You got the run of this place

Yup, the friend is George W. Bush.

The slow reveal of the mystery friend’s identity in “You Got Away With It” was a sick joke that spoke to what incensed people about Dubya’s reign. He hadn’t earned the presidency — he’d lucked into it thanks to his connections and his powerful friends and his “brother down there in Florida.” Basically, Bush “got away with it,” and you could feel Snider’s anger in every syllable.

#3. We don’t know who was Dick Cheney’s heart donor.

In Vice, Jesse Plemons plays a narrator who seems to know a lot about Cheney, although we’re not sure why he’s part of this film’s story. Near the end, the connection becomes clear: Plemons’ character dies when a car hits him, becoming the unwitting man who donates his heart to Cheney in 2012.

This is, of course, completely fictional. Cheney doesn’t know who his heart donor was. And he doesn’t necessarily want to find out.

I can’t say I disagree with his rationale: It would be difficult to speak to the family whose loved one’s death allowed you to keep on living. But it also raises questions about why, exactly, Cheney was ahead of other people on the list for a new heart.

The Daily Beast wrote about this, noting that, in early 2012, “there were 113,639 people on the waiting list for an organ, of whom 72,822 were on the ‘active’ roster, suggesting a more pressing need. But many different human organs are transplanted each day, including hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers, intestines, corneas and the pancreas. And that does not count the human tissue that gets moved around — faces, tendons, bones, skin. (These latter items don’t count as ‘organs’ in the 113,639 total.)”

The site did some digging to determine that the world of heart transplants isn’t a merit-based system. Neither age nor length of wait appears to be criteria for who gets selected. “One hospital might set the cutoff at 20 or 50 or 100 years old, while another might figure 55 is the way to go,” wrote Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist. “In a free market, people can find their own way.” But even if you luck out and your number gets called, Sepkowitz estimates that the procedure can cost around a million dollars — and that “about 300 people a year die while waiting for a heart transplant.”

In 2013, Cheney reflected on his lifesaving operation, saying, “When I came out from under the anesthetic after the transplant, I was euphoric. I’d been given the gift of additional lives, additional years of life. For the family of the donor, they’d just been [through] some terrible tragedy, they’d lost a family member.” It wasn’t Jesse Plemons’ character specifically, but you can understand why McKay wanted to humanize that mysterious donor in some way. Cheney may not want to meet his donor, but Vice doesn’t want us to forget he existed.