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Two of the more infamous Republican Party operatives have become the subjects of biopics within the past year. In “Vice”, a 2018 film now available on Amazon streaming, Adam McKay portrayed Dick Cheney as a cynical opportunist who was both responsible for the “war on terror” and the extension of executive power that enabled the Bush White House to suspend habeas corpus. Currently running on Showtime, “The Loudest Voice” examines the life of Roger Ailes as a modern-day equivalent of Citizen Kane if Orson Welles had portrayed his fictionalized version of William Randolph Hearst as a monster straight out of his mother’s womb.
The two subjects have quite a bit in common. To start with, they were both products of an America that Norman Rockwell once painted but no longer exists. Growing up in Casper, Wyoming, Cheney enjoyed life in “The Oil City” that was ranked eighth overall in Forbes magazine’s list of “the best small cities to raise a family.” Ailes hailed from Warren, Ohio, a mid-sized city like Casper, that like the rest of the pre-Rust Belt region relied on manufacturing to provide the solid middle-class existence portrayed in Rockwell paintings. His father was a foreman in Packard Electronics, a subsidiary of General Motors. Just like Michael Moore, whose father worked for GM in Flint, Ailes idealized the Warren of his youth, seeing it as a place where motherhood, apple pie and the flag reigned supreme. Like Steve Bannon, Ailes’s right-populism revolved around the notion of making a new world of Warrens possible by keeping out immigrants and toughening up trade policies long before Donald Trump became President.
Both men also suffered from long-term health problems. After smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years, Cheney had to pay the piper. Nine major heart surgeries starting in 1988 culminated in a seven-hour heart transplant operation in 2012 that has left him on the sidelines politically, accentuated by the bad will his support for the invasion of Iraq had accrued. Even after everybody else had said their mea culpas, Cheney told Chuck Todd on a 2014 Meet the Press show that “Saddam Hussein previously had twice nuclear programs going. He produced and used weapons of mass destruction. And he had a ten-year relationship with Al Qaeda. All of these things came into play.”
Ailes’s health problems were congenital. Born a hemophiliac, he was browbeaten and even beaten by his father to not give an inch to the illness that would finally kill him in 2017 at the age of 77. After hitting his head in his Palm Beach home, he suffered a subdural hematoma that was aggravated by his hemophilia. Nobody seemed to miss his passing, especially all the women he victimized sexually at Fox News.
Turning now to the two biopics, my verdict is that “Vice” is the far inferior work suffering from a misplaced satirical intent that is mismatched to its subject matter. Like the 2017 “The Death of Stalin”, it tries to apply the SNL gloss on the surface of a nightmare that is continuing to this day. McKay probably wasn’t capable of anything more weighty since his CV is made up films like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, and seven episodes for SNL between 2000-2001. As I labored to stick with this jokey movie to the bitter end, I couldn’t help but think of it as an unintentional “Springtime for Hitler”.
With my press credentials for Showtime, I have been able to watch 5 episodes of “The Loudest Voice”, now queuing up for the 4th episode this Sunday. If you have Showtime, do not miss this scathing portrait of a true monster who is played to perfection by Russell Crowe. Or find a friend who does have Showtime since the 7-part series succeeds both as entertainment and social history. The conflict in the United States between the Trumpified Republican Party and those on the left has been gestating from the time that Ailes became the founding President of Fox News in 1996. Those who yelled “Send Her Back” at Trump’s rally in North Carolina yesterday are the prototypical Sean Hannity/Tucker Carlson viewer. It was Ailes’s intention from the moment he began Fox News to build a powerful movement based on racism, nativism and faux populism. Regrettably, his legacy continues in the Trump White House.
While this is not a determining factor in the quality of the two biopics, “Vice” made some unwise casting decisions, largely dictated by “star power”. While Christian Bale does a good job impersonating Cheney with makeup and a fat suit that probably took six hours each day to get right (as was the case with Russell Crowe as Ailes), you never stopped seeing an impersonation for a single second. With Bale being cast against type, you fixated on the transformation rather than the character. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld was an even bigger mistake since he too was cast against type. If it was impossible to get Bale as Batman out of your mind, it was uber-impossible to not think of all the feckless comic losers Carell played in his entire career. Rumsfeld was scary; Carell as Rumsfeld was just senseless.
Turning now to the substance of the two films, “Vice” can best be described as the sort of satire Stephen Colbert employed when he played Bill O’Reilly. His writers wrote hyperbolic dialog for him that was intended to make the audience laugh at his stupidity even if it became somewhat obvious at a certain point that the show’s joke was a one-trick pony. McKay, who wrote and directed, makes no attempt to make Cheney and Rumsfeld say things they would have said in real life. He puts words into their mouth that are obviously a liberal’s attempt to mock those he views as the enemy. In essence, he is spoon-feeding liberal bromides to the audience who he does not trust as being able to distinguish good guys from bad.
The film is riddled with bogus dialog but probably none is more egregious than the scene outside of Kissinger’s office when Rumsfeld was a counselor to Nixon and Cheney was his aide. They are discussing plans to bomb Cambodia:
Rumsfeld: They’re going to bomb Cambodia.
Cheney: That’s impossible. That would have to be approved by Congress and I’m over there every day
Rumsfeld: Fuck Congress. Unless you’re in it. Then it’s the greatest deliberative body on earth. But we’re not, so fuck it.
Cheney: I thought the President campaigned on ending the war?
Rumsfeld: Shhhh. Listen to me…Because of the conversation Nixon and Kissinger are having right behind this door, five feet away from us… in a few days, 10 thousand miles away… (Script indicates a cut to a peaceful Cambodian Village going about its day to day life with a WHISTLING SOUND far above…) … a rain of 750 pound bombs dropped from B-52s flying at twenty thousand feet will hit villages and towns across Cambodia…thousands will die and the world will change either for the worse or the better.
(From the screenplay.)
Rumsfeld might have said any number of things if he had been chatting with Cheney outside of Kissinger’s office but the words in the script were not his, nor anything remotely similar. They were placed there for the actor to recite so the audience would be appalled by his inhumanity. Like CNN and MSNBC every night, the entire purpose of “Vice” was to reassure audiences that they had pure souls just like Adam McKay.
The creative team around “The Loudest Voice” was an all-star team. The Executive Producers included Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Sherman, who also co-wrote the first episode. McCarthy wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Spotlight”, a 2015 film about the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church pederasty scandal. Sherman is the author of “The Loudest Voice in the Room”, a biography of Ailes that included interviews with 614 people but not the big cheese himself who tried in vain to squelch the book.
Sherman, a minor character in the series, becomes a lightning rod for Ailes’s hatred in episode 5 when he discovers that the veteran reporter has begun interviewing people for his book. He authorizes a “Brain Room” that functions like an intelligence agency researching every article Sherman has written and sending private detectives out to follow his every move. In keeping with the half-muted anti-Semitism of the Trump era, Sherman was characterized by Fox as a “Soros operative” because he was associated with the New America Foundation.
Roger Ailes started out innocently enough as the producer for The Mike Douglas Show in 1965, an afternoon variety program that was based on pop culture rather than racist demagogy. In 1967, Richard Nixon was a guest. After the show, Ailes told him that he needed a media advisor. So persuasive was Ailes that Nixon hired him on the spot.
After a successful stint as campaign adviser to Republicans like Reagan, Bush ’41, and Giuliani, Ailes returned to TV where “The Loudest Voice” begins. In 1995, Ailes was forced to resign from CNBC after it was bought by Bill Gates and NBC. After it was relaunched as MSNBC, Ailes went to work for Rupert Murdoch as head of the newly launched Fox News. In a key scene, Ailes meets with top management to give them their marching orders. Fox News would not bother trying to reach liberals. Instead, it would offer up red meat to Rush Limbaugh listeners who had made talk radio such a powerful institution. Let CNN and MSNBC have the liberals, he exclaimed. We’ll take the rest of the country and fuck everybody else—the watchword of the Trump administration.
Playing Ailes to perfection, Russell Crowe depicts a media mogul who demands total loyalty from his underlings, offers good jobs to women in exchange for a blow job, and sees his TV hosts as hitmen and women against everybody on the left—the left eventually defined as including Republicans like those who put out The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine that went bankrupt because it refused to toe the Trump line. Crowe, like great actors of earlier generations such as Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy, could not be cast against type because he was never one-dimensional to begin with. Watching him throw paperweights against underlings who challenged his demands or cursing at Barack Obama on the TV set is more than watching an actor perform. It is like watching Roger Ailes’s avatar—simultaneously revolting and compelling, like a roadside crash.
In one of my favorite scenes in the series, which occurs in episode 3, Ailes is waiting to meet with leading Democrats to discuss a truce that will tamp down the vitriol Fox News has been directing at Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Sitting down and working on some prepared remarks, his old friend David Axelrod sidles in and greets him. They chat good-naturedly about old campaigns that they ran against each other’s candidates and then shake each other’s hand warmly. Their dialog:
Ailes: I was surprised about the Biden decision. He’s a good man but dumb as an ashtray.
Axelrod: He plays well for us where we need him to. The Catholics, the military, the union guys.
Ailes: He plays well with the whites.
Axelrod (grinning): It doesn’t hurt.