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Oscar-nominated 'Vice' is a character study on the quest for power


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Our reporting and coverage of a wide range of arts and culture have long been a hallmark of the "PBS NewsHour," dating back to the very earliest days of the program.

Tonight, we're proud to say we are expanding that coverage each week with a new series, Canvas. We will continue to profile the exciting and emerging work of artists, writers and creators, as we always have. But we will be working to feature even more voices, new talents and provocative ideas on the broadcast and online.

We're starting this week with some of the artists and performers who have been honored with Oscar nominations this year.

Jeffrey Brown launches our Canvas series with a conversation about one of this year's most-nominated films, "Vice," the story of Dick and Lynne Cheney.

Sam Rockwell: I want you to be my V.P. I want you. You're my vice.

Jeffrey Brown: Part comedy, part tragedy, all raw politics, "Vice" is a film for our own politically divided times.

Christian Bale: Maybe I can handle some of the more mundane jobs, overseeing bureaucracy, managing military, energy, foreign policy.

Sam Rockwell: That sounds good.

Jeffrey Brown: Vice, of course, is Dick Cheney. And here we see his rise from Yale dropout and Wyoming lineman to Washington power player extraordinaire, chief of staff for Gerald Ford, congressman, secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, Halliburton CEO,and finally George W. Bush's vice president.

It's a portrait created by director Adam McKay.

Adam McKay: We went into it with an open mind.

Jeffrey Brown: You did, really?

Adam McKay: Oh, absolutely. The whole idea of the movie was, who is this guy? How did he make the decisions that he made?

Jeffrey Brown: McKay, whose last film, "The Big Short," took on the 2007 financial crisis, makes no secret of his own liberal politics.

Adam McKay: My mom is definitely right-wing, and I told her, "I said, mom, maybe don't see this one."


Jeffrey Brown: Christian Bale, in a remarkable physical transformation, plays Cheney, while Amy Adams plays his wife, Lynne.

Amy Adams: Can you feel it, Dick? Half the room wants to be us. The other half fears us. I know George is next in line, but after that, who knows?

Jeffrey Brown: But while recent events and real people are the focus, Amy Adams says she approached it like any other film.

Amy Adams: I looked at it as a character study, and the way that the characters evolved from their early 20s to their 70s, and the way a relationship evolves and the way that a marriage evolves. For me, the script was so unique and so individual, I found myself forgetting, and until we started talking about the movie with the press, that I -- we had made something that had a political point of view.

Jeffrey Brown: Still, she says, Lynne Cheney presented a unique challenge.

Amy Adams: People have a lot of opinions about her and about her politics. And so stepping aside from that and just really diving into the truth of who she was and where she came from and how -- not who is Lynne Cheney, but who was Lynne Cheney, and how did that create this story that then became what we know of her today.

Jeffrey Brown: Does that mean divorcing yourself from the real Lynne Cheney, who is still alive, who is out there?

Amy Adams: To some degree. It's always tricky, you know, when you're playing someone who is real and alive, because everyone -- I mean, even if someone were to play me, it's not the me that you see in front of you.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course. Right.

Amy Adams: And it's a curated public persona. You know, she's on book tours and doing interviews. It's not -- I'm not in bed with Lynne Cheney. So I have to kind of figure out some -- a different aspect of her personality.

Amy Adams: Here's my plan, right? Either you stand up straight and you get your back straight and you have the courage to become someone, or I'm gone.

Jeffrey Brown: McKay says he came to see Lynne Cheney as the lynchpin of the movie.

Adam McKay: A lot of people in their hometown, in Casper, Wyoming, to this day still say that whoever Lynne Vincent would've married would've become president or vice president.

So it was hard to ignore that Lynne was really the engine of Dick Cheney. And I think there's a moment where Lynne and Dick almost become the same person. When you really go to that vice presidency, he's totally internalized her ambition and her smarts. And they really are the same person.

Jeffrey Brown: Critics have praised the acting performances, but a number have raised questions about McKay's portrait of Cheney as, a man devoid of any conservative beliefs or political ideology beyond the quest for power.

Adam McKay: The question coming into it was, how did these people end up in this circumstance where they were advocating for torture or, you know, tweaking the intelligence to invade Iraq, which we now know is a fact that that happened?

So, coming into it, we were open to the idea of, who are these people?

And in the research we did, we didn't find a core ideology. So there are some people that interpret the actions of Cheney through an ideological lens. I just don't agree. I don't see that kind of consistency.

Jeffrey Brown: You tell us at the top of the film that it is mostly true, or as true as we could make it, and you say, "We tried our F'ing best."

But what does that mean?

Adam McKay: Anything we're showing has been fact-checked. And we're not putting it out there lightly. But what we're acknowledging is, there's just a lot about Dick Cheney you're never going to know.

He's a secretive guy. He kind of prides himself on it. So we just wanted to acknowledge that there's dark matter within the movie at the head of the movie and make a little bit of a joke about it.

But I definitely have a lot of faith in the audience that you can feel the history when it clicks.

Jeffrey Brown: Adam McKay says he spoke with his actors during filming about the partisan blowback the movie would likely face in today's political climate. Amy Adams adds this:

Amy Adams: It is unusual for me. What's interesting is that I have close family on both -- I have close family on one side of the aisle and close family on the other. So these are conversations that we have around the table all the time.

And it's something that I think is really important. And so whether or not I talk about it a lot outside of my own dinner table, I think the conversations are going to move us forward. So I'm happy to be a part of something that, again, created the conversation.

Jeffrey Brown: "Vice" competes for best picture and seven other Oscars at the upcoming Academy Awards.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Los Angeles.

Judy Woodruff: Worth watching.

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