the report and vice

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Vice and The Report are among the first films to truly look back at the Bush years with a severe and critical eye..)

Adam McKay‘s Vice and Scott Z. Burns‘ Sundance film The Report both hold a microscope up to the actions of the Bush Administration, in very different ways. But both The Report and Vice arrive at the same conclusion: we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes, even after we’ve studied them. 

“What do we, uh, believe?” a young Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) asks a young Donald Rumsfeld in the first act of Adam McKay’s Vice. Rumsfeld, played with over-the-top glee by Steve Carell, answers the question with bawdy, mocking laughter. The implication is clear: these people don’t actually believe in anything.

But to shrug off Cheney, Rumsfeld and the other dirty dealers of what would eventually become the disastrous Bush administration as nothing more than opportunistic crooks is dangerous. Don’t get me wrong: they were opportunistic crooks. But there was something else going on with their many nefarious deeds. They weren’t just subverting laws and norms – they were being zealous about it. At the end of the day, they thought what they were doing was 100% justified – after all, they were the ones in charge. They subscribed to the same fallacy as Richard Nixon, who infamously shrugged off his alleged crimes by saying, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Cheney, Rumsfeld and the lot were the United States Government for a period of years. And when the United States Government does “it” – it being whatever the hell it wants to – that means that is not illegal. At least according to the Bush administration. And that’s what makes them so terrifying.

McKay’s Vice attempts to condense the actions of the Bush administration into a tidy, silly package, crafting an extremely dark comedy that approaches history with a glib, winking eye. But this year’s Sundance Film Festival premiered a film that could almost be a companion piece to Vice – Scott Z. Burns’ star-studded political drama/thriller The Report. Indeed, The Report deals with many of the same individuals who pop-up in Vice. In fact, there’s a scene from Vice that also happens in The Report, in a much different way.

vice movie christian bale

That scene involves lawyer and Bush administration official John Yoo (played by Pun Bandhu in The Report, and Paul Yoo in Vice). The scenes in question deal with Yoo’s gift for using legalese to turn constitutional norms on their head – specifically in regards to how the United States started using “enhanced interrogation”, AKA torture, techniques following 9/11.  

In Vice, the scene evolves into a rather goofy playlet in which Bush administration officials sit in a fancy restaurant and pick out torture techniques like waterboarding as if they’re picking expensive items off a menu. The Report breaks it down in a much different way, with Adam Driver’s character, Senate staffer Daniel Jones, rattling off the details as Burns intercuts a flashback.

Two scenes, one situation, incredibly different depictions. That sums up The Report and Vice. I’ve not come here to bury Vice, though – I actually enjoyed the film, and I liked the go-for-broke approach McKay went for. But I also can’t shake that early scene – that scene where Rumsfeld cackles at the idea that the GOP believes in anything at all. It’s too simple, and frankly, it lets them off the hook.

The Report, which tracks Daniel Jones’ dogged investigation into the CIA’s use of torture following the September 11th attacks, is much more damning in its appraisal of the Bush admin – and the CIA, who don’t even figure into Vice. As The Report unfolds, and Jones uncovers more and more alarming, and even deadly, practices that have been covered up or buried, a stark, terrifying picture begins to form. The reason the people in question did what they did was because they believed in it with an almost religious fervor. In one scene, Dr. Jim Mitchell (Douglas Hodge), one of the men who engineered the enhanced interrogation techniques, almost breaks down in tears as he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing – recalling the lives lost in 9/11. This isn’t to say The Report is excusing Mitchell’s actions, or the actions of those who implemented his practices. Instead, it’s revealing how a terrible idea can blossom into a full blown nightmare when people believe so firmly in it. It’s cult mentality. And without coming right out and saying it in The Report, Burns is also underlining how America got where it is today. True believers can’t be shaken from their horrible beliefs, because in their frenzied minds, what they’re doing is almost divine.

The fact of that matter was that the United States had no trouble engaging in torture techniques because they were torturing “the other.” These weren’t white Americans being tortured – they were Arab men from another part of the globe. Who really cared if any of them got hurt, or traumatized, or died? Sacrifices had to be made to get the job done.

the report jon hamm

Of course, what The Report ultimately reveals is that these acts didn’t get the job done. They didn’t work at all, and resulted in no useful intel. But by that point, it was too late. The damage had been done.

In McKay’s hands, all of this falls at the feet of the GOP. And while they certainly deserve the brunt of the blame, Burns doesn’t let the Democrats off the hook either. While Jones is a Democrat seeking truth in the film, working for Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), the behind-the-scenes goings on reveal that even after the Obama administration took control, secrets and lies were still running rampant. Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), Obama’s Chief of Staff, even runs interference for the CIA and its new director, John Brennan (Ted Levine), who refuses to admit the CIA did anything wrong.

And what have we learned? Not a damn thing, apparently. As The Report comes to an end, it underlines the fact that no one was prosecuted for any illegal activities. In fact, people who engaged in these potentially criminal acts have only risen in the ranks – like Gina Haspel, who is now the Director of the CIA. In this revelation, Vice and The Report are aligned. The government did terrible things in the name of patriotism, and it will do them again. It’s still doing them. The United States Government is a big, churning, terrible machine, and you can either keep up with it, or become chewed up in its gears. Everyone is accountable, and at the same time, no one is. When the United States does it, that means that it’s not illegal.

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