Ron Suskind has closely covered Dick Cheney and the George W Bush White House as a journalist and author of The One Percent Doctrine and The Price Of Loyalty, and he was the executive producer of the Emmy-winning Oscar-nominated feature documentary Life, Animated. His bold reporting included an inflammatory report that the blueprints for the Iraq invasion were drawn up way before 9/11, something that seems all too obvious when you watch Vice. Suskind acted as consultant for Adam McKay as The Big Short director tore down the curtain built by the most powerful Vice President in American history, depicted in the film as the true power behind the George W. Bush administration. Vice is up for eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor for Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams for her role as Lynne Cheney, Sam Rockwell for his role as George W. Bush, and McKay for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
DEADLINE: As a journalist, you closely covered Dick Cheney and the George W. Bush administration in books and articles, and you were a consultant on Vice. What’s your assessment of the storytelling techniques used by Adam McKay, this hybrid of journalism and dramatic license to get to the essence of the mysterious Cheney, the power behind the throne?
RON SUSKIND: So many things were impressive about it. The thing that struck me, knowing many of these actors — and I mean these historical figures — is the extraordinary magic trick Bale does at the center of all this. I know them, but still, a few minutes into the movie, I wasn’t thinking about Dick Cheney, the guy we know. I was living in the skin of Bale. These biopics have been around a long time. Frost/Nixon and Oliver Stone’s W. And you feel, that’s an actor playing this person that I know intimately, which is the way we bond with them in this visual, image-driven era. So you’re thinking, how is Brolin’s imitation of W, as a young man?
What’s extraordinary about this movie is how, a few scenes along, you’re with Cheney. It’s the deepest rendering of someone so well-known that I’ve ever seen. What it allows is a fresh start and the chance to say, let me try to understand who this person, really, who is so familiar to me and all of America, and why it matters? That’s what this movie does, and I say that as somebody who has met many of these folks as a reporter.
DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges in breathing life into history in a narrative form?
SUSKIND: The challenge is authenticity, to be true to not only the deeper expressions of character, what shapes character, what drives an individual, what is the thing that makes him tick, and really dig deep into that. You’re not going to do that with every character, but you’re certainly going to do it with the two main characters that really dominate the screen, Dick and Lynne Cheney. I think that was enormously successful. Our current, reductionist media environment begs for the one-liner, what drove Dick Cheney? That’s ridiculous. It’s not that way for any human.
The challenge here is not to abide too religiously to these debates over this action versus that, who did what, and what were the consequences, and what were the reasons behind it? You could make 20 movies about this period, digging into the nuances and specifics of policy debates that were already endlessly argued over. People say history is an argument that never ends but there are ways, in the years following events, in which the best version of history kind of settles itself and we can embrace it. The trick here is to be able to move across those deep debates over every twist and turn of this period, in a way that allows people to hold onto what they may already believe but move forward into a place where they have not yet gone. What’s the big, sweeping takeaways of this period?
The key is to move across the mountaintops of each one of those debates and at the same time carry the reader, rather, carry the viewer forward to understand the big takeaway of this time. What, in a hundred years, when we look back, will we say, yeah, that’s what defined this era, that’s the thing that I see most dramatically as to what it all added up to? And I think they did that quite well in this movie. I think it was a real feat.
DEADLINE: How close did McKay get to the essence of Cheney?
SUSKIND: Well, what he gets right about Cheney is that he’s not going to be a simple character of good or evil, which is what you usually get in the movies. Real people are more complicated. That’s part of what he does here that creates the enormous sweep of reactions to the movie. He humanizes Cheney, and I think some people hate that. They’re like please don’t humanize Cheney, for Christ sake, you know, I am very, very comfortable believing Dick Cheney is one of the greatest villains of modern times. Now, the fact is, you may still feel that. You may feel that and still understand him as a three-dimensional and fully realized character with a heartbeat, including a heartbeat that keeps skipping beats in every heart attack. That feat of empathy makes for great moviemaking or great narrative nonfiction, for that matter.
DEADLINE: When Christian Bale wins the Golden Globe and thanked Satan for the inspiration to play Cheney, that is judgment. Did you feel that the treatment toward Cheney was justified and fair?
SUSKIND: I did. There are moments where you see Cheney acting in all kinds of ways. With his family. His relationship to Lynne. He is recognizably human. Now, many of the things he does have horrific consequences, as we look back on the path of the great Ship of State America and in the lives of many, many people. And McKay doesn’t pull back from that. You see it’s not one or the other. It’s easy to just say two-dimensional cardboard cutout created awfulness. It doesn’t work that way. They’re recognizably human. They’re just like us. Everybody is essentially identical in all the key ways that define us as human beings.
DEADLINE: You wrote the One Percent Doctrine, where Cheney would say, if there’s a 1% chance of WMD, let’s get that message out there. We just passed an election where the focal point was a caravan of refugees headed toward the Mexico border and it sounded like we were doomed. Focus went away the moment the election was over. How much connective tissue is there between what was fomented during the Republican revolution presided over by Cheney, and what we’re seeing now?
SUSKIND: There’s an enormous connection, and I think McKay manages that rather effectively in this movie, as do the actors. He traces it all the way back to the days of Nixon. You know so much of the R&D of this time was actually developed in that Nixon administration, which, of course, ends with Nixon’s resignation. Nixon was a guy who actually believed in the power of government and understood the way it can be employed and with great alacrity, great depth. At the same time, you know, the Enemies List, Nixon’s view of the eastern liberal establishment, Nixon’s playing off of the racist Southern strategies of the time, so much of this was developed then, and that’s where Dick Cheney really arrives and learns, you know, some of the key features of his tactical model. Interestingly, here’s how Cheney viewed the Nixon Watergate scandal: his view was that Nixon was over-briefed, which I love. Nixon was over-briefed! That’s Cheney’s takeaway, pure tactics. This flows naturally to Reagan’s plausible deniability.
In every era, you had the actors, the presidents, the folks who dominate the stage. But the fact is we often miss the people right next to them, behind them, guiding them. Historically, they often end up being the most or among the most important players.