Adam McKay on Dick Cheney's Legacy (ep. 31)
In his new Oscar-nominated film "Vice," Adam McKay (Saturday Night Live, "The Big Short") tells the story of Dick Cheney's journey from college dropout to becoming the most powerful — and probably the most controversial — vice president in American history. McKay joins At Liberty to discuss Cheney's legacy and why he chose to tell this story now.
[0:02] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host. This week we're joined by filmmaker Adam McKay. A veteran of the comedy world, McKay's credits include Saturday Night Live, Funny or Die, and The Big Short. Today we'll be talking to him about his latest film, Vice, which he wrote and directed, and has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Vice tells the story of Dick Cheney, as played by Christian Bale, during his journey from college dropout to becoming the most powerful and probably the most controversial vice president in American history. We'll discuss why he chose to tell this story now, and Cheney's legacy ten years after the end of the George W. Bush administration. Adam, thanks very much for joining us today. Welcome to the podcast.
Thanks, Emerson. Very good to be here.
The question I wanted to start off with is how did you decide to tell this story now? What drew you to the story of Dick Cheney?
You know, I finished up doing The Big Short. And we had done all the publicity tour and the award shows. And that thing happened where our bodies tend to do where, all of a sudden, I just got really sick for like two and a half weeks. I had a nasty flu. And I started looking at bookshelves, you know people give you books through the years and sometimes you just shove them up there and don't really think about them.
And there was one about Dick Cheney and it kind of struck me, like, wow the book of history is about to close on that guy like you don't really hear his name mentioned that much anymore. And you don't hear W. Bush's name really mentioned. And, you know, holy cow those were just rough eight years and we went to war and the economy collapsed and torture and all these things. And I, you know, I follow the news so I knew some stuff about him, but I just was curious.
[1:59] And I started reading and was kind of amazed by what a large, epic American tale Cheney's life story is. How far back it reaches, how many monumental moments in history he was around for. He had this like Zelig like presence in the 70s through the 80s. And then, of course, I was amazed by how — I got to give him credit — brilliant he was at manipulating the system and playing the system once he became vice president, and his understanding of the bureaucracy and the laws and how to squeeze between the cracks on them so that he could acquire more power.
And I kept reading more and more books, and the story kept getting richer and richer. And then somewhere along that line, Donald Trump got elected, and all of a sudden we started hearing people say, “Hey, I kind of miss George W. Bush. You know, he wasn't that bad, him and Cheney.” And then I really felt like I got to make the movie. I was like, this is crazy that people are saying this. And that was it. We were off to the races.
Well, it's really interesting to think about the different reactions you've received. I've talked to others who've seen the film for whom this was revisiting a bad memory, but there are many other folks, some younger people, for whom this is the first introduction to this story. Which audience did you have in mind as you were making it? You said that you were worried that the book of history might close. Was it primarily targeted at younger folks who are not so familiar with this story?
You know, I didn't really think about the specific audience. I mean, I knew certainly, you know, professional journalists and scholars knew quite a bit about Cheney, so it wasn't targeted at them as much, but I was hoping to just re-engage the conversation. Or another way to look at it is, in the film world, there really hadn't been any movies made about him. There was W by Oliver Stone that glanced on his character, but that was about it. And there's certainly some great documentaries but there was no real film. And I just wanted to make sure that what happened was marked down in the film ledger.
[4:04] And as it's turned out, you're correct. The most exciting responses I've been getting to this movie are from younger people, and that ranges from teenagers all the way to early 30s. I have a neighbor who has a son who is 14 years old and he's watched the movie four times. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me at screenings and say, you know, “I was too young for this. Oh my God, thank you for making this.” And then the other reaction has been from older people. People in their — when I say older, keep in mind I'm 50 — so I just mean, you know, 50s, 60s, 70s, even 80s who are just happy that we're being reminded of this again, that this didn't disappear, that somewhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million Iraqis died and torture came back and the rule of law was challenged in a major way. And that we're not letting it slip away. So I get a lot of people coming up to me like that, as well.
And is there added pressure on a narrative filmmaker when you take on this type of question where it may be under-documented and not extremely well understood by the populace? But this actually really happened, and so what kind of extra responsibility do you have in terms of your artistic choices in making a film like that?
It was very tricky and really that extra responsibility just boiled down to one thing, which is mounds and mounds and hours and hours of research — reading every article, every interview, every book. We even hired our own journalists to go interview about a dozen people off the record to make sure what we were doing wasn't off base.
And you're right, there's whole periods of the record with Cheney that are really hard to dig into. There's millions of documents that have disappeared. He certainly won't ever say anything in an interview. So, you know, we say it at the beginning of the movie — we did our best — and when there were areas where we really, really couldn't find out what happened, we acknowledge it in the movie or we'll do a stylistic interpretation. And ultimately I feel pretty darn good about the result.
[6:04] I just read a piece by Cheney's biographer — who, if anyone was going to take out the blades on this movie, it would be him — and really, his complaints when you read them were pretty tiny and they're pretty, pretty weak. His big complaint was like, “Well, Halliburton was a really qualified company. That's why he gave them a no-bid contract.” I read that, I was like Really? That's your defense? And his defense of Cheney tweaking the intelligence just boils down to “no, he didn't do that.” So, you know, there's always going to be those attack dogs that come at a movie like this and they try to insinuate that it's not true. But it's held up quite well.
Well, it's particularly impressive because you not only chose to take on a very complicated topic, but you also chose to try to weave comedy into it. So how hard was it to choose where to insert the comedy into what is largely quite a tragic story?
Well, we felt like, with the world we're living in now, there's so many different tones and genres that are all intermingled. A great example is the movie Get Out, which I'm not sure what you would call that — a horror film, a satire on race. It feels like more and more, we've slipped outside the traditional confines of genre. And no greater example than the current president, who you want to laugh at because he's like a cartoon character. But then you realize the tragedy of what he's doing.
And a lot of this movie tracks with the rise of the Republican Party and the Reagan Revolution, which, you know, hey it's a fact — they did it. They succeeded. And some of those beats are pretty ridiculous, and some of the things that Cheney and his cohorts did, they're fairly obvious and sometimes they get a little ridiculous. So we wanted to make sure we had all those tones in there, that even during those grim W. Bush years, we were sad, we were demoralized, we were horrified. But sometimes we laughed. Sometimes, you know, we had to rally together.
[7:54] So there was really an attempt for the movie to reflect that in the world that we live in today, and have that feeling of lots of different feelings. And also it's great, too, because it never settles into any kind of set formula and we really wanted the audience to be on the edge of their seats when they watched this movie. The feeling of anything can happen.
Well, I think you certainly achieved that. it's a compelling story and compellingly told, but it involved a lot of decisions along the way, as you know. The greatest hits of Dick Cheney the vice president include the unitary executive, the war in Iraq, trampling the separation of powers, torture, so many civil rights and civil liberties issues. How did you decide what to focus on? In the end, it's really a character study of Dick Cheney, but it's so hard to pull so much of what he did into one story. So how did you make those kind of calls of what to keep in and what to leave out?
The movie is a little bit of a mystery and it was driven by the questions. The questions are: Who is this guy, and where did he come from? And then the other big question is, why did he rise the way he rose, and what was his relationship with power? So once you put those questions in front of you, right away you learn that who Dick Cheney is, is actually a pretty average kid from Wyoming. And really, what changed his life was meeting Lynne Vincent, who then became Lynne Cheney.
She was an unusual lady — very brilliant and ambitious in the late 50s, in a time in Wyoming where most women were aspiring to be nurses, teachers, or housewives. This woman had a completely different view of the world. So he fell for her and he changed because of her. So that was the first part.
The second part was, was Cheney driven by an ideology? Was he driven by a strong belief system or was he driven by careerism? The ladder that people tend to climb to make their family proud and to do well and expand your power. And pretty quickly we discovered, with Cheney having two parents that were strong, strong Democrats and actually, by all accounts, Cheney was not really being too interested in politics when he was younger, not really having a strong point of view. The turning point for Cheney really became meeting Donald Rumsfeld who was probably one of the most ambitious people in Washington D.C. at that point.
[10:07] So at that point, the story became about Lynne and Dick getting a taste for power and liking power. And I couldn't find a consistent ideology. They were willing to be slightly against the Vietnam War with Rumsfeld because it served their purposes to counteract Kissinger. But then, when they were in the Ford administration, they were willing to be very hawkish on Russia because that served a way to expand their power. So the perfect manifestation of that view is the unitary executive theory, a strong interpretation of the universal executive theory, because that is all about expanded unchecked powers.
And for those who aren't familiar, the unitary executive theory is basically the idea that the president has almost unchecked power to direct the executive branch, particularly during crisis.
ADAM: To even call it a theory is probably giving a little too much credit.
And it's no mistake that Dick Cheney was drawn to it like a mosquito to a light, and it became one of the driving forces of his career. It's what brought him together with David Addington, his lawyer, as some people call him, “Cheney's brain.” And you see it constantly throughout his career — his attempts to expand executive reach, expand executive authority, to operate without transparency, to operate with impunity. So that really became the kind of center of the legal side for us when it came to Dick Cheney.
Well, that’s a really helpful framework. Who was he and where did he come from, how did he rise so fast, and then, what was the role of ideology versus careerism?
I’d maybe like to take those in turn and unpack them a bit. In terms of where he came from, one thing that I noted about the film is that you actually don't go much into his background. And you mentioned that his parents were strong Democrats but that is not actually in the film. It's an interesting tidbit. But how did you decide when to start his story, which is after he's already dropped out of college? There’s very little about his family or his upbringing.
[11:57] Well, that was one of the hardest parts of the movie. We originally had filmed the whole section about him meeting Lynne and falling in love, we did mention the parents, but it just — we test-screened the movie and it kind of just laid there. And the reason it lays there is just, it goes back to basic storytelling mechanics. It's not really an active choice by Dick Cheney.
He's not the protagonist of his first act. And it's really Lynne Vincent’s story, the first act. Because you look at Dick Cheney's brother and sister, they had very, very normal lives. I think the brother was a plumber. It's hard to find much about them. But I'm convinced if Dick Cheney hadn't met Lynne, he would have spent the rest of his life in Wyoming, and probably would have been a lineman, maybe gone to community college. And it was just not an active beginning to the story.
The real active beginning is when he's screwing up and she says, “Get it together or I'm gone.” And in that moment, you see her ambition. You see that she's an unusual, forceful, strong woman for those times. And you see that he really does love her and he's gonna do this for her. So, yeah, there was a lot of discussion, a lot of different cuts about it. But instead, we ended up resting on that scene and making that scene kind of do a lot of that work for us. Believe me, I would have loved to have done a two hour 45 minute version of the movie. But we felt like that moment kind of crystallized a lot of what I just said.
And the idea of him being like a Democrat — his parents were Democrats, I don't think he really cared. He was pretty ambivalent. I mean, he did a little bit of internship work when he was at University of Wisconsin for like a Republican governor. But for the most part, he didn't seem driven by any kind of ideology. And by all accounts — and I think he's even said it — it was when he saw Donald Rumsfeld that he was like, “Whatever that guy is. That's what I'm doing.” Because Rumsfeld was like a rocket ship. The ambition just crackled off him when you met him. Good looking guy, former Navy pilot. So that was a tough area as far as how much to go into it, but the elements are there.
[13:58] Well, I want to come back to the first time that Dick Cheney meets Donald Rumsfeld. But coming back before that to the critical scene that you mentioned, where Lynne Cheney essentially says, Shape up or we're done. And as depicted in the movie, it was that one conversation that changed everything for Dick. And I wonder how much artistic license was involved in that choice? Was it really so simple, that he turned on a dime and is that a story that he would tell? What were the sources for that?
That is a story he actually tells, and that's a story Lynne tells. And that is a story other people have echoed. And in our interviews, off the record interviews, it was confirmed that was his rock bottom. He had two DUI’s. He was hanging power lines for the state. And that was his rock bottom.
And apparently, he really did turn it around. He stopped going into town after work and drinking. He stayed in some little crappy little trailer with an old World War One veteran to avoid drinking. I mean, it's funny — back then changing your life around was different than changing your life around now. I think he even said like, “Just beer, no liquor,” like that was the equivalent of like changing your life around. But he definitely white knuckled it. He definitely made a change.
And people around him noticed it, and slowly that led to him getting his degree from State and then going on for his grad degree. So yeah, I mean, are there some little bumps in the road that happened after that meeting? I'm sure there are, life never works that perfectly, but in the Cheneys’ lore and legend, that's the scene. And it was backed up from some other people in his life as well as that really was his rock bottom.
It's interesting. And I think, you know, the next critical scene in the movie as you referenced is when he's enthralled by Donald Rumsfeld and seemingly picks being Republican just because of the charisma of that one individual. And he doesn't seem to care much about the division between the parties. And I guess some critics have seen that as in some way maybe absolving him of culpability for the ideological ends that he then pursued. What do you make of the fact — that if we're to understand that it was really about careerism vs. ideology — what do we take away from that distinction?
[16:12] Well, I mean, I think careerism has done more damage to America than just about anything. I think treating something like public service in representative government as a game or as ladder climbing or a chance for advancement is extremely dangerous. I think we have plenty of examples of that in the last two or three decades, of people that like to be a senator because there's an oil painting of them in the office and all their friends are proud of them.
And from what I gathered and from what I read, there's great tapes of the Nixon folks, Nixon and Haldeman talking about Rumsfeld and saying how, “This guy Rumsfeld, he’d kill his mother to get ahead.” And this is Nixon and Haldeman saying this. And from all the research I did on Rumsfeld, there's very little hint of ideology besides “Me, me, me.” And this was Cheney's mentor. This is the guy who taught him.
It’s all about bureaucratic infighting. It's all about climbing the ladder, taking out your enemies, you know, forming alliances to make sure that you've got the proper network laid out there, hiring people so they're your people. All these little bureaucratic rules and tricks. You know, later a guy named Lee Atwater would become a master of those tricks as well.
And yeah, by all accounts that seems to be the case. He's the guy who changed Cheney’s life around and you know, actually in the reality of it, he wasn't able to get with Rumsfeld right away off that internship. He had to go with a more moderate congressman named Steiger. But the whole time he was with Steiger, he kept trying to get back with Rumsfeld. So when Rumsfeld was made head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Cheney, totally on his own wrote, talking points for him and submitted them to Rumsfeld. And then Rumsfeld was like, “Who is this guy?” and then hired him off of that.
So clearly, Cheney was smitten with this guy. This was the guy. And he knew that Lynne only had so much patience for him being part of a fellowship and making very little money. And the guy who was going to get them there fast was going to be Rumsfeld.
[18:10] Did you allow yourself to think what might have happened if there had been a particularly compelling and charismatic liberal who had spoken that day?
You know, I mean there certainly were Democrats back then that were climbing that ladder as well. I mean careerism isn't just on the right wing. Yeah, I mean it's very possible because, I mean, the initial congressman he was with, Steiger, was a really good guy by all accounts — I mean, he was one of those old moderate Republicans, like a Rockefeller Republican. And Cheney didn't take to it. I think when you go more that public service road you're not climbing that ladder quite as fast. And Cheney wanted out. Doesn't mean he didn't like Steiger, but he wanted out. So I'm not sure that would have taken.
There was even a little story about, for like 10 seconds, he was going to serve in Ted Kennedy's office, but he got the other guy from Wisconsin to stay with Kennedy so he could stay with Steiger, and then eventually make his way to Rumsfeld. So as I say it out loud, I don't think that would've happened because the opportunity was kind of in front of him with the first congressman he served with.
Yeah, so the question around whether there was some hint of ideology or whether it was just the naked pursuit of power is quite hard to unpack. I mean I think for the ACLU the issues that we were most engaged with at this time included torture and some of the national security surveillance stuff. And in some ways those are not always partisan issues either but rather questions of power.
What did power mean to Cheney, do you think?
I think one thing we've lost in this country is that we don't talk about power as its own force unto itself enough. You know, there was a time in the country where people were very aware of unchecked power and what power could do to people with actual physiological changes that unchecked power can bring on. I mean, you look at all the sociological studies that were done in the 60s, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, and I think it's, somewhere along the line, you just don't hear that as much as something that’s discussed. It's almost treated like a naive interpretation. But unchecked power, I mean, it turns people upside down.
[20:21] And one of the models I looked at for Cheney for Lynne and Dick was the movie Sid and Nancy by Alex Cox, where Sid, Sid Vicious, starts off as a guy who's not a junkie, but falls in love with a woman who is. And I think that's kind of what happened here. I think that Lynne came from a rough household. She wanted safety and control. Dick fell head over heels in love with her, of that there is no question.
And I think the system in their relationship became, you know, when he would gain power and move ahead she would like that. And he wanted her approval, clearly. I mean, look at the change he made off of their big argument. And then you look at all the choices he made.
I really don't get the sense in hearing him talk now that he was really too concerned with being right or wrong, it was more that he was making the decision that he was changing history. That seemed to be what really pushed him along. Because if you cared about being right or wrong, you would have researched Iraq before we went in there. You would have found out about those divisions between the Shia and the Sunni, and you wouldn't have disarmed the the Iraqi army, you would have really paid attention to the reconstruction, but that clearly wasn't on any of their minds. It was about the exercise of power and, you know, some of his guys came out of that neocon movement, reads Leo Strauss, and all that kind of stuff. But really when you boil all that down that's all about expansion of power.
Just picking up on this theme, I mean, you get the impression from the film that Dick Cheney's power was almost without limits. And clearly he was central to so many moments in American history. But I wonder how you tried to balance conveying the point that he was far more powerful than people realized without getting in the territory of lionizing him in some way.
[22:08] Yeah, I mean, it's it's a tricky thing. You call it the Goodfellas syndrome, where, you know, you're watching these gangsters do really horrible things and kill people and rob. But man, oh man, it's fun to see people operate outside the rules, right? It's always kind of a thrilling thing. We really made an effort to always show the effects of them walking down a hallway looking at paperwork.
And it really starts with them being in the White House and kind of gossiping in the hallway, Rumsfeld and Cheney, about the bombing of Cambodia. And we right away tried to show that that's not some abstract discussion. We go right to an actual village being bombed and we did the same thing with the Iraq war. It's not nervous George W. Bush reading that we're attacking the country, it's an actual family cowering under a table in Baghdad, and the torture is real. You see people really screaming that these decisions have impacts.
And that was our attempt to get out of that kind of Goodfellas syndrome, was to really show the suffering that's going on. Like, if you recut the movie Goodfellas and added six percent more suffering on the side of their victims, it becomes a very different movie. And we really made an attempt to do that.
No, and I think it's quite powerful to see the juxtaposition of the impact of these decisions that are made thousands of miles away. But you do still get the impression, despite the fact that there are tragic consequences to what he's doing, in some ways he never really sets a foot wrong. And I wonder how you made that decision, especially in light of the fact that there were lots of people, at the ACLU and elsewhere, who were fighting very hard against a lot of these policies.
Oh yeah, I mean, it's in no way, through what he does during his time as vice president, in no way are we saying he's operating with impunity. If you look at the way he's acting, he's still being tricky. I mean, he's still — like when he meets with those energy CEOs, he finds a little bit of a loophole in the law.
[24:03] Like, when they start working the intelligence on the Iraq war, they're working it from inside. Without a strong free press, without the ACLU, you would have him doing this in the light of day, but he couldn't. You know, that's why 22 million emails disappeared when he left office. That's why hundreds of thousands of documents that he refused to turn over. There's a story about the energy commission, too, one of the other loopholes that said that you can't meet in the same room.
So we were so tempted to put this in the movie, but they actually did a meeting with an energy CEO, where he would stand outside the doorway and they would talk to him. But he was very crafty, all that kind of tap dancing around the law. But, yeah, there were certainly people who knew what he was up to. They knew something was afoul.
You see it in the movie, too, when there's the Freedom of Information Act. I think it's from the Sierra Club — and they got the maps of the Iraqi oil fields off those energy commission meetings. So there definitely is pushback going on. And then by the end of about six years the country did start figuring out, through the efforts of, once again, great journalists, great coverage, the ACLU, activists – everyone did start to figure out, boy, these guys have really messed stuff up.
And I mean, finally it was the economy collapsing, that's the one thing you can't cover up. So yeah, if I’d gone the road of showing vigilant constitutional warriors fighting against him, that becomes kind of a different movie. I wanted to show his craftiness, but there's no way he operated with impunity. It was a very tricky, very quiet, very light-on-its-toes game that he ran when he was in the White House. Just about influence and unspoken influence and he really lived in the cracks of the system. That was my interpretation.
One other theme I wanted to bring up was the inclusion of the story about his daughter, when his daughter Mary came out of the closet. That was what one might consider a redeeming moment for him, for large parts of the audience, where he accepted his daughter when she told him that she was a lesbian.
[26:03] Later on in the film we see the sort of power-over-everything piece of his character show through. Can you talk about why you decided to highlight the story with his daughter in particular, and maybe tell us how that turns out?
One thing you'd hear about Dick Cheney through all our research, over and over again, is he’s a great father. He does all the cooking for the family, does the shopping. He loves his daughter, he loves his wife, that he is dedicated, that his family is everything. So when I read the whole story of Dick Cheney through the, you know, books of Barton Gellman, Jane Mayer, Ron Suskind, David Corn, Isikoff, on and on and on. All these great journalists. It just really struck me that in the end, he and Lynne threw their daughter over. That they allowed that to happen. There's no way Liz would have done that totally on her own — spoken out against Mary. There's just no way, not the way Liz operates. She's so connected to her mother, to her father. And then two days after it happened, Lynne and Dick basically supported Liz with a public statement.
And I just thought, man, that’s, he gave it all away at that point. That to me is what made it a complete and total tragedy and that's the final kind of tally, the final destructive count of power. Is what he did to the country, what he did to countries like Iraq, punching holes in the Geneva Convention, what he did to the checks and balances of our democracy, what he did to the spirit of the American voter, the spirit of the American nation. And then the final thing, the tools that he used, that the Republican Party as well — the story in some ways is the story of both: man and party. These tools of division that they had used to gain power, you know, you've got to vote against gays, you've got to vote against people with different colored skin, you've got to vote against liberals and Communists.
[27:53] You know, this narrative they had created to solidify their power eventually took down his own family. And by all accounts I've heard that the two daughters to this day don't speak. I know as recent as 2015 that was the case and there's a, you know, a fissure in their family that I don't know will ever be repaired. So to me at that point the tragedy was complete on every level: on personal, family, country, world. I think deep down inside, he knows he gave it all away. I don't know how much feeling is left there, but there's got to be a little part of him that knows what they did was very, very wrong in supporting Liz with that.
Well, I'm glad you brought up the issue of sort of the narrative arc and where to land and the finality of the tragedy. I don't want to give any spoilers but how did you decide on what note to end? You were talking about the fact that you were trying to blend some genres — there's tragedy, there's comedy, there's drama. You played with the idea of of a film ending in a few different ways. But I want to just hear a bit about how you decided what note to end on and how to close out the film.
Well there's one thing I can probably say that's not giving anything away, is that there's a two camera speech from Cheney at the end of the movie where we basically use a lot of snippets of dialogue that he himself has said to defend himself. And finally, after the entire movie, turns to camera and looks us dead in the eye. And I really wanted that in there. I really felt like, you've watched this whole movie, you've seen this whole story. And his argument of, “I kept you safe.” I just felt like an audience needed to be hit with that after that whole movie. Like can you, do you still buy this?
I've heard people who've seen this speech and they say they're more horrified than ever. I've heard other people say it does kind of raise a good point. We just felt like we had to lay him out in the end like this is the guy we're looking at. This is his best argument. You've seen all of this. How do you react to it? And it's been fascinating. I've heard almost a dozen different reactions to it, many different interpretations to it.
[29:58] Then there's another little thing we do after our end credits where we do almost like a little doodle, like a living political cartoon that comes way later in the credits. And that was just, you know, this is a crushing story. It's a very tragic story, and I didn't want an audience to slink out of the theater feeling completely demoralized. And I think sometimes when we're able to laugh or we're able to have some perspective, it does give us some strength.
So there's a lot of discussion about the tone of the ending of the movie, and there's obviously a lot of tragedy with it. But I also wanted to kind of remind us to stay buoyant with it. So there's a little joke in the end just about the split times we live in, the Trump people versus what they would call the Liberals kind of endlessly fighting, and then some other people going, “God, I'm so tired of this let's just go watch a movie.” Which in some ways is a self indictment of me and the movie you've just watched. And at the same time, just a light little dinner mint after a very, very heavy meal.
So yeah, there's like three different endings. I also like the idea that, you know, with our form of our movie we don't adhere to any traditional form. Things are very open ended and I kind of like that the ending of the movie feels like it almost bleeds into reality as you walk out of the theater.
That was the intention anyway. It's up to every viewer to decide how they feel about it, but that's what we're trying to do.
Well, you mentioned at the opening that you know reading the news made telling this story feel more urgent. What exactly about this story do you think resonates today and what lessons beyond, you know, the tonal note on what to end on, what sort of lessons did you want the audience to come away with?
Well, there's one that I feel is pretty pressing and urgent. And while we were making the movie it got louder and louder. And you at the ACLU would know much more about it than I would, although I did do a fair amount of research on it. And that's the unitary executive theory. And I do think there's a slow, quiet kind of fifth level chess game going on, where the reason they wanted Kavanaugh so badly in the Supreme Court was because he's a huge believer in a strong interpretation of the unitary executive theory.
[32:05] And now that we're seeing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her health start to fail, if they get a fifth person on there — because they have four right now with varying degrees of belief in radical interpretation of the executive theory — they get a fifth on there, that's a majority. And that means there could be a case that comes before the Supreme Court where the president is flagrantly guilty of criminal behavior.
And if that court hands down a majority decision citing the unitary executive theory, meaning that a president can't be charged, that could be a death blow to our democracy. I mean, my theory is legally, the way democracy ends in this country is through the unitary executive theory. And so that's a part of the movie that, as we were making it, kept getting louder and louder. Seeing Dick Durbin question Kavanaugh about the unitary executive theory, looking back at Alito being questioned about it. Hearing the A.G. who's been questioned by Congress. And I think this is a thing that Cheney certainly stood for. He always believed in expansion of executive powers, and so on a legal, literal level there's that side of the movie.
On an emotional storytelling level, I think it's once again the story of, we have to, as citizens, always be checking power — that if we take our eyes off the ball, even for a couple of years, just assume power is spreading. Whenever we're not vigilant with it, assume it's spreading and it's becoming unchecked. And that makes it a potential danger. And we just have to always be demanding transparency, and whenever we don't have that transparency, we should be very, very concerned.
Well, I wanted to end our dramatic and deep discussion with a couple of lighter questions. One, on behalf of my dad who's a fly fishing enthusiast, I wanted to ask about your use of the fly fishing metaphor throughout this story. There's a scene in the midst of the post 9/11 attack chaos, a close up of a catfish I think under the water. And later on in the final credits, you use flies as the sort of visual hook, so to speak.
[34:07] Can you talk about why you chose to fixate on the fly fishing? And can you give my liberal dad permission to continue to engage in this despite the fact that it’s Dick Cheney’s favorite pastime?
Well, there's a quote from Lynne Cheney, and we played with the idea of putting it in the front of the movie, but it felt too obvious. She just said, “Look, if you want to understand my husband, you have to know one thing. He's a fly fisherman. It explains everything about him.” There's a patience to it, there's a level of catching every detail, a methodical nature. And it's the thing that Dick Cheney had that Donald Rumsfeld didn't have.
Donald Rumsfeld was much louder, much more impatient. Lynne, too — a little bit more combative, although very brilliant. And the thing that Cheney had was he knew how to take a loss.
Like when he tried to push H.W. Bush, in the 91 Iraq War, to go all the way, to not seek the approval of Congress, of the U.N., and not do a coalition. H.W. told him, “No way. You're crazy.” And Cheney fell into the mode of a good foot soldier and did his job as Secretary of Defense. He understood how to take losses and move on.
And I think the key to the entire movie is really the conversation he has with his daughters when they're very young early in the movie. And they say, “Are we tricking the fish?” He says, “You have to find out what the fish wants, and then you use that to catch the fish.” And then the daughter says, “Is it a good trick we're playing or a bad trick we're playing?” And he says, “It's not really either. It's fishing. We catch the fish, and then our family gets to eat.”
So that, to me, is the way Cheney views the world. It's all very methodical. It's about process. It's about moving forward. There's no real good or bad to it, it's just what he does. And I think in some ways, the Republican Party took that on, as well. And that's what those fishing lures are in the end. You see that some of them are like a bible with a hook in it — like they'll use religion to get supporters. You see the 911 towers, which Cheney used to gain power. That's why there's a lure in that. You see a TV with a hook in it. They'll use the media to get power. You see the White House, you see a surveillance camera, and these are all the ways that they can hook power.
[36:12] So it's twofold. It's the lure that you use to convince people, and then it's also Cheney's personality — that slow, methodical personality. It's not a good trick or a bad trick, it’s fishing.
Well, the final question picks up on the theme of powerful people and their daughters. Why do you think Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump walked out?
I think the bigger question is: Why did they buy two tickets and walk in? That's the question I really want the answer to.
It's a good one. We'll see what we can do to figure out the answer. Thanks very much, Adam it's been a real pleasure to have you on the podcast.
Thank you Emerson, and thank you to the ACLU. I support everything you're doing, and man oh man do we need you more than ever these days. So thank you so much.
Thanks very much for listening. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast, rate us, and tweet @ACLU with feedback. We appreciate your input and will be sure to read every message. Till next week. Peace.