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Vice: What the movie gets right and wrong about Dick Cheney

Christian Bale transforms himself to play Dick Cheney in the movie Vice. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures) Christian Bale transforms himself to play Dick Cheney in the movie Vice. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

Christian Bale transforms himself to play Dick Cheney in the movie Vice. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg February 8, 2019

Editor's note: Have you ever wondered if the movie you just saw — that claimed to be based on a real story or historical events — was really accurate? So have we. With this year’s Oscars featuring historically based movies up for Best Picture honors, we wanted to help you sort out the facts from the dramatic liberties. (We've also fact-checked BlacKkKlansman and Green Book.) Warning, major spoilers and plot points ahead!

Adam McKay’s Vice presents a peculiar challenge to fact-checking. This impressionistic biopic about Vice President Dick Cheney and the run-up to the Iraq War might draw on reality, but it often takes a hard right into the surreal.

Sometimes that’s obvious, like when Dick and Lynne Cheney snuggle up in bed and have a passionate exchange about the path to power in Shakespearean verse. Lynne Cheney might have chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities, but iambic pentameter probably stayed at the office.

In other scenes though, the line between historic facts and poetic interpretation gets fuzzy. The movie offers dialogue about building the case for war against Iraq and justifying waterboarding that might not be verbatim, but it could reflect the broad thrust of Cheney’s role in the White House.

For Cheney’s defenders, one of the film’s biggest failings is the overall picture it paints of Cheney as a modern-day Rasputin, bending a pliant President George W. Bush to his will.

"There was never any question who was in charge, and that was George W. Bush," said Eric Edelman, Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security from 2001 to 2003. "I’m not aware that Dick Cheney ever acted independently of presidential direction."

We’ll see where the record backs up the Oscar-nominated film and where it doesn’t.

Here are the key plot-points we cover:

The civilian plane shootdown order on 9-11

Dominating the White House

Pushing the Iraq War

The reach for unfettered power

Justifying torture

A VW Beetle. Really?

In the movie: Cheney okays the shooting down of civilian planes on 9-11.

In reality: The official account largely backs this up, but leaves a little wiggle room.

Cheney (Christian Bale) takes a call in the White House bunker on the morning of 9-11, as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) looks on. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

Cheney is in a command bunker deep under the White House after al-Qaida terrorists take over four commercial planes. He picks up a call from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Dick, there are still passenger planes in the air. I need rules of engagement," Rumsfeld says in the movie.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice suggests they call the president, airborne on Air Force One, but Cheney cuts her off.

"You have authorization to shoot down any aircraft deemed a threat," he says.

It’s not clear if it really happened that way. The 9-11 Commission report, the official study of what took place that day, left some wiggle room on whether Cheney took it on himself to authorize the downing of civilian planes. The key issue is the sequence of events.

The report said that by 10:15 a.m., Cheney okayed a shootdown.

It had a call logged between Cheney and Bush at 10:18 a.m., and said, "On Air Force One, the president's press secretary was taking notes; Ari Fleischer recorded that at 10:20, the president told him that he had authorized a shootdown of aircraft if necessary."

Cheney told the commission that he had spoken to the president minutes earlier, and Bush told investigators he recalled authorizing the shootdown order.

The report said "there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete."

At the end of the day, the movie is in line with the paper trail.

In the movie: Cheney aimed to run the White House.

In reality: The movie takes some liberties, but Cheney raised the power of the vice presidency to a new level.

In the movie, and in reality, Cheney crafts an unprecedented power-sharing relationship with President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

Vice is about power, and in one scene, it uses board game graphics to paint a picture of how Cheney filled as many key national security slots as he could with people who shared his views.

The scene opens with a meeting among Cheney, David Addington (Cheney’s legal counsel), Mary Matalin (Cheney’s top communications adviser), Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Donald Rumsfeld (defense secretary) and Scooter Libby.

"As you all know, I’m Scooter Libby, Dick’s chief of staff," Libby says. "But I’m also a special adviser to the president."

As Libby talks, game pieces appear on the board game. At the end, the game piece representing Bush is surrounded by Cheney game pieces.

The Bush White House was organized in ways that gave Cheney’s office much more leverage than previous vice presidents. His staff, especially through Libby and Matalin, was fully interwoven with Bush’s.

"Matalin and Libby received the same information as the president’s closest advisers," wrote Gettysburg College political scientist Shirley Anne Warshaw in her 2009 book The Co-Presidency of Bush and Cheney. "Nothing was kept from them. This extraordinary access allowed Cheney’s staff to be fully informed about all decisions about to reach the president’s desk and the options presented to him."

To be sure, the movie takes liberties. It has Cheney saying his team would get the daily intelligence briefing "before the president so we can get inside the decision curve."

Joyce Battle, principal researcher on the Iraq War files at George Washington University’s National Security Archives, told us she knows of no document to back that up.

Broadly though, the administration was packed with Cheney allies. His stint as defense secretary under Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, and the rest of his Washington resume gave him many pre-existing relationships with other Washington power players. Wolfowitz had been his deputy at the Pentagon. Stephen Hadley, who also came from Cheney’s Pentagon team, landed a key national security post in the Bush White House.

But Edelman, Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security, said it is a myth that Cheney controlled some sort of a parallel administration inside the administration.

"Cheney had influence, he certainly helped recruit many senior officials across the government," Edelman said. "But he did not run some kind of rogue deep state."

Our takeaway: There is no question that Cheney had people he could call on in many corners of the administration.

In the movie: Cheney’s focus on the worst-case scenarios leads the country into war on false premises.

In reality: Cheney bought into intelligence reports, some judged unreliable by analysts, that later proved to be wrong.

In Vice, Cheney teleconferences with national intelligence staff and demands to see raw, unfiltered reports, regardless of accuracy. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

The tension between what some intelligence offices were saying about al-Qaida and Iraq and what Cheney believed was going on plays out in several moments in the film. In one scene, Cheney is talking with Bush.

"It’s called the Office of Special Plans," Cheney says. "Tenet (CIA director) is not yet serious enough about the threat Saddam poses in the GWOT, or global war on terror. But I can promise you, this intelligence group will be."

Within the movie’s shifting timeline, it’s unclear when this invented exchange takes place. The Office of Special Plans emerged inside the Pentagon in September 2002. The office developed its own intelligence reports, sometimes at odds with what the rest of the intelligence community was saying, and briefed top White House staff.

In 2007, a Defense Department Inspector General report found that the office delivered conclusions that were "not supported by available intelligence," and in a fashion that "undercut" the intelligence community.

With 20/20 hindsight, the core error is clear. The administration’s main argument for attacking Iraq was that it supported terrorists, possessed weapons of mass destruction and was building its capacity to increase its arsenal. In a nationwide address, Bush spoke of "the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

After the United States and its allies took control, they found, according to the CIA, "Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability was essentially destroyed in 1991." Saddam Hussein "aspired to develop a nuclear capability," the CIA said, but he "had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD."

Edelman rejects the idea that the movie’s conversation between Cheney and Bush about the Office of Special Plans ever happened. He said it distorts how the administration’s thinking evolved. Edelman acknowledges that Cheney and Bush were thinking about Saddam Hussein before 9-11, but they had no clear policy.

"Both believed that we needed to find a solution to the Saddam problem," Edelman said. "Whether that required war or not wasn’t clear until much later, in 2002, after the UN resolution and after the diplomacy at the UN failed."

That might be, but soon after the attacks, the administration was putting the pieces in place for military action.

In late November 2001, Rumsfeld went into a meeting about Iraq with General Tommy Franks, head of Central Command. Rumsfeld came with talking points that led with "Focus on WMD." Rumsfeld’s notes had ideas of what might trigger an attack. One was, "Dispute over WMD inspections? Start now thinking about inspection demands."

Given Cheney and Rumsfeld’s long history, there are grounds to link Cheney to efforts to build the case for war. But it’s worth noting that the movie misfires badly on some details.

At one point, the film has Rice telling Bush that the Israelis didn’t see Saddam as an immediate threat. In fact, Israel lobbied hard in favor of attacking Iraq.

In the movie: Cheney built the case, years in advance, to exert unfettered executive power.

In reality: A key scene with Scalia in the 1970s is fiction, though Cheney did push for maximum presidential authority.

The 9-11 terrorist attacks opened the door for Cheney to expand the reach of the presidency at the expense of congressional oversight. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

In a scene set in the mid 1970s, when Cheney was deputy chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, he meets with a Justice Department lawyer.

"I would like to reinstate executive authority," Cheney says. "How?"

The film’s narrator jumps in:

"Antonin Scalia, a young lawyer with the Justice Department, who would later go on to serve on the Supreme Court, rocked Dick’s world."

"Have you heard of the theory of the unitary executive?" Scalia says. "It’s an interpretation a few, like myself happen to believe, of Article Two of the Constitution that vests the president with absolute executive authority. And I mean absolute."

This is not a subtle moment: An image of a lion bringing down a gazelle flashes on the screen. The narrator comes back:

"Certain legal scholars believe that if the president does anything it must be legal because it’s the president," the man’s voice says. "To hell with checks and balances, especially during times of war. This was the power of kings, pharaohs, dictators."

This scene is about one step down from the mock Shakespearean bedroom dialogue. Yes, Scalia was in the Justice Department and joined Cheney and then Chief of Staff Rumsfeld in pushing Ford to veto an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act.

But after that, the scene is pure invention.

First of all, the phrase "unitary executive theory" didn’t come until later.

"The phrase was clearly around in the late 1980s, before Dick Cheney was vice president of the United States, but significantly not during Dick Cheney’s mid ‘70s service as deputy chief of staff in the Ford administration," said legal scholar Douglas Kmiec at Pepperdine School of Law.

Second, the film butchers the meaning of the term. The theory, legal scholars told us, says the president has ultimate control over whatever powers the executive branch has — not that it has unlimited powers.

"No serious advocate of the theory – not even Cheney – claims that anything the president does is legal," said Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University..

In the movie: Cheney worked the legal process to justify torture.

In reality: He wouldn’t call it torture, but he definitely pushed for waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods.

Cheney was a key architect of the administration’s war on terror, including its most controversial elements, such as brutal interrogation and warrantless monitoring of private communications. (Courtesy of Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures)

There’s a scene when Bush, Cheney and other key players are talking about extracting information from the people the military captures:

Cheney: "We believe the Geneva Convention is open to... interpretation."

Tenet: "What exactly does that mean?"

Addington: "Stress positions, waterboarding, confined spaces, dogs."

Rumsfeld: "We’re calling it enhanced interrogation."

Bush: "We’re sure none of this fits under the definition of torture?"

Addington: "The U.S. doesn’t torture."

Cheney: "Therefore, if the U.S. does it, by definition, it can’t be torture."

Setting aside the invented dialogue and the closing line about what defines torture, the gist of the scene hews to the facts.

In January 2002, deputy assistant Attorney General John Yoo co-wrote a memo to explain why the Geneva Convention didn’t protect captured al-Qaida and Taliban members.

Yoo said that, among other reasons, "customary international law, whatever its source and content, does not bind the president or restrict the actions of the United States military, because it does not constitute federal law recognized under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution."

Now, the scene blends two strands together — holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and torturing them. On the issue of Guantanamo, Edelman told us, "Cheney clearly played a very large role in that policy, no question."

Yoo went on to write a memo justifying what most people would call torture. In November 2002, the top lawyer at the Defense Department wrote that under some circumstances, stress positions, waterboarding (described as "the use of a wet towel to induce the misperception of suffocation") and other harsh methods "would also be permissible."

Cheney has consistently defended waterboarding, in keeping with his movie portrayal.

"I think we did those things we needed to do to make certain that we were operating within the statutes and the laws," Cheney said in a 2015 interview.

In the movie: Cheney drove a VW Beetle in the mid 1970s.

In reality: He did.

As President Ford takes office, Cheney picks up Rumsfeld at Dulles Airport. He’s driving a VW Beetle.

"You’re still driving this chick magnet?" Rumsfeld says.

A Ford or a Chevy in any condition would fit the Cheney persona. It boggles the mind to imagine a man of his heft, both physical and symbolic, tucking himself behind the wheel of any import, much less a VW bug, but we’re persuaded that he did.

We asked Edelman if this detail was true.

"From a source very close to VP Cheney, 'he did drive a VW Beetle in the 1960s and 1970s until the floorboards rusted out. It was black,’" Edelman wrote.

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