Films look at war from inside and outside the halls of power

  • Christian Bale plays former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in “Vice.” Bale has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. Photo by Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures 2018  

  • Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster star in “Leave No Trace,” a film about a damaged U.S. veteran and his daughter. Image from IMDB

Los Angeles Times
Thursday, January 24, 2019

There are moments in “Vice,” a forbidding portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and “Leave No Trace,” a parable of an Iraq vet trapped with his demons in the Oregon woods, when the travails of recent American history are compressed into how one man becomes a casualty in another’s relentless pursuit of power.

“Vice” explores a post-9/11 White House where Cheney, President George W. Bush’s scheming shadow, veers the nation into two misguided wars that helped instigate today’s political enmity and cultural divisions. “Leave No Trace” gives us Will, a fictional metaphor for hundreds of thousands of American soldiers maimed physically and psychologically in the deserts of Iraq and the valleys of Afghanistan.

The films are bookends for a time that’s passed but really hasn’t. Cheney’s quiet, methodical cunning to expand presidential powers and rouse conservatives with patriotism and fear of the other were a prelude to President Donald Trump’s fanning of immigration fears and his “Make America Great Again” slogan. Soldiers like Will were footnotes in Cheney’s design, often forgotten outcasts in a legacy of opioids, addiction, suicides and PTSD that has plagued veterans for nearly two decades.

The movies, which epitomize the disparate styles of their directors, unsettle the tidy notions a nation makes to mask its darker self and the consequences of its actions. Taken together, “Vice” and “Leave No Trace” are indictments — one subtle, the other not — of our polarized, self-serving politics and the country’s inability and indifference to heal the unseen wounds of the men and women it sent to do its bidding.

For “Vice” director Adam McKay, Cheney (Christian Bale in an Adacemy Award-nominated portrayal) is the consummate insider, a man of stealth who navigates a Washington punctuated by cutting asides, shifting loyalties, corruption, Shakespearean bedtime banter and a waiter (Alfred Molina) who slyly offers torture on a menu.

Like McKay’s “The Big Short,” a skewering of Wall Street over the 2008 financial crisis, “Vice” is a bristling panorama of caricatures and incisive renderings of men and a few women with dangerous ambition and boundless hubris.

“Leave No Trace” protagonist Will (a haunted Ben Foster) lives with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in a solitude of forest rains and ever encompassing isolation. He sparks campfires and moves like a breeze through the underbrush. Director and co-writer Debra Granik can make nature both serene and menacing, full of beauty and hushed sounds, as if placing a soul adrift in unpredictable elements. The film casts a mood similar to “Winter’s Bone,” her masterful 2010 exploration into sins and family bonds deep in the Ozarks.

“It’s a really hard time after a war,” says Granik, whose 2014 documentary, “Stray Dog,” about a Vietnam veteran, helped inform her script for her new film. “No one wants to talk about it. The headlines are gone. It’s not appreciated in films. It’s like, OK we did that. It’s had its window.”

If Will is the faded headline, Cheney is the man held unaccountable. In “Vice,” he views himself as a protector who must do whatever it takes to keep Americans safe. Although he is at the center of the nation’s wars, he appears detached, strolling hidden hallways or riding horses in the West while fire rains down on Saddam Hussein.

Cheney was secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War in 1991; he knew how cruise missiles, drones and satellite technology could turn the battlefield into a distant abstraction of video-game-like figures.

“Looks like it’s time to take Iraq,” he says in the film, even though no credible intelligence linked Hussein to weapons of mass destruction or ties to al-Qaida. But anyone who questioned that agenda — remember the Dixie Chicks? — was attacked as unpatriotic and scorned as naive to the cruel ways of the world.

“Vice” at times reduces Cheney, whose former company Halliburton reaped billions of dollars in government contracts from the war, to a man consumed solely with power. But Cheney and his wife, Lynne (played in “Vice” by Amy Adams), were ideologues pushing a conservative, U.S.-first agenda to rationalize torture (enhanced interrogation), spying (eavesdropping on Americans’ phone calls and emails) and overthrowing leaders (Hussein) who were no threat to Washington.

“I can feel your recrimination and your judgment, and I’m fine with that,” says Cheney, looking directly into the camera at the audience. He was, after all, the guiding force for George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and a White House that did not want the flag-draped coffins of soldiers photographed; they chose to pretend the spoils of war didn’t sting.

“You answer me this,” adds Cheney. “What terrorist attack would you have let go forward so you wouldn’t seem like a mean and nasty fella? I will not apologize for keeping your families safe.”

The ground Cheney set — repeatedly misleading Americans on the danger of Iraq, even after he left office — would later bloom into the Trump administration’s use of lies and “alternative facts.” Played by Bale, Cheney, unlike Trump, is reticent, but he’s well versed in the sinews of politics and government. He would not have been a tweeter. In one scene, he tells Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to tone down his rhetoric because “we have the conservative radio and TV doing the yelling for us.”

“This is a guy who had an outsized influence on American history and world history,” McKay says. “He’s clearly not a charismatic guy. He’s clearly a guy who lived in the shadows.”

But, McKay adds, “We’re all doing the best we can, even the worst of the worst among us. Dick and Lynne came through the era of the Reagan revolution that changed everything, and they saw the country under attack. And [Cheney] used the tools and the beliefs that he had learned, which was executive authority and power, and you hit back. And when America needs to, we can get dark.”

Will of “Leave No Trace” also lives in the shadows. The film is personal, not political: a father and daughter coming to terms with who they are. But roaming the woods, sleeping beneath a lean-to and foraging for food, Will is testament to trillions of dollars spent on two failed wars: more than 400,000 Iraqi civilians killed, the deaths of at least 4,400 U.S. soldiers, 32,000 total U.S. casualties, and a 31-percent increase in suicides among American service members since 2001.

An ancient warrior voice and a damaged conscience reside in him. He is connected to the warriors in Homer, the mud-splattered troops of World War I’s trenches, the soldiers of Vietnam. The specter of the battlefield turned many into unsettled souls, questioning the war that bruised their morality and forced them into a self-banishment from the world they had once known.

Granik calls it “the dark downside.”

“This spirit that lives on the margin,” says Granik, who based her film on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock. “We don’t know if we can see [Will] or not. He lives in the woods. Is he to be feared? Is he to be loved?… We don’t know why he’s choosing to live this way. That was the beginning of being able to name post-traumatic stress.”

Will carries a newspaper story about Iraqi vets committing suicide. He sees bits of himself in their words. He stops taking his medications, knowing that too many vets are addicted to opioids, antidepressants and other prescription drugs that have caused only more despair.

Granik blames the pharmaceutical industry for turning the VA into “the largest suicide prevention agency in the world.”

Well trained in the art of survival, Will clings to Tom in the belief that he can raise her. But she is a girl who hasn’t seen the things he’s seen. They find refuge at a commune. Tom senses she belongs; she wants a piece of a bigger family. But he needs to strip to his essence, to keep minimal, to stay far from the crowd. Tom knows this. It breaks her heart, but she knows, and there is acceptance when Will slips on his rucksack.

“There’s such a rich legacy of soldier poets after wars,” Granik says. “To think your own thoughts about what you did, why you did it, who asked you to do it, all the parameters of what happened to you. To crack that open becomes excruciating for some, but I like the rigor it takes to do that.”

“Leave No Trace” ends with Will disappearing into the forest, the flicker of a ghost. The last we see of Cheney in “Vice” is when he looks at the camera and accepts no blame.