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Hollywood farce, Trump Republicans and the surprising courage of Liz Cheney

Hollywood farce, Trump Republicans and the surprising courage of Liz Cheney
© Greg Nash

If you lean left politically and love movies, you were probably a little stunned by what Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyTrump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece Trump has 'zero desire' to be Speaker, spokesman says Liz Cheney hired security after death threats: report MORE did this past week.

Most likely, your image of her didn’t include a kind of lone-wolf heroism that dominates headlines and fuels GOP chaos. Instead, you expected Cheney to play a role: the consummate compass-free political opportunist, ready to do what it takes to gain power and hold it.

That’s certainly the image I had. And I got it from, among other things, a biting Hollywood comedy about her father that was nominated for eight Academy Awards, the 2018 film “Vice.”

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For those of us who were not fans of Dick Cheney, “Vice” is a fun ride. Adam McKay’s film is part polemic, part political satire, the kind that reduces most characters to one easy dimension. The former vice-president here is driven by an all-consuming ambition that compels viewers to get angry, but also to laugh (uncomfortably) at Cheney’s power-hungry ethos.

About two-thirds of way through the movie, there’s a jarring scene where daughter Liz falls right in with her father’s leadership values.

It’s 2014. Dick is out of power and Liz Cheney is running for the Senate from Wyoming. She’s attacked as pro-same-sex marriage, supporting her gay sister, Mary. Liz sits with her father and agrees to win by whatever means necessary: She publicly denounces gay marriage, creating a brutal rift with her sister.

Most details there are true. But the scene is presented in the exaggerated atmosphere of farce. For Liz and Dick here, it’s a pretty straight-forward decision — two people from the same gene pool who understand power is everything.

For a while, that’s all the truth any of us in the anti-Cheney column needed. Liz lost that Senate race but won Wyoming’s lone Congressional seat in 2016. She strengthened her already-staggering ability to drive progressives crazy and dutifully threw in with the Trump-enamored House GOP. By 2019, they elevated her to their third-highest leadership position. 

It looked like “Vice -The Sequel.” Congress was no doubt a mere stopover in another determined Cheney’s march to power’s pinnacle. Nothing could stop her — and there was certainly nothing Liz would do to stop herself.

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Until the Capitol insurrection.

In the aftermath, Cheney was the sole Republican leader in the House or Senate to vote to impeach President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE. She continued to speak out with increasing urgency, essentially daring Congressional colleagues to either wake up or push her out. Last week, they chose “push.”

All of this was Liz Cheney playing against type — at least the type sketched out in “Vice.” That character would never sacrifice power for principle; the movie unfortunately hints at nothing deeper in her.

In the end, that’s okay. Satire against politicians has a long and useful history, an entertaining way to keep the powerful humble. It’s just good for audiences to remember actual humans can surprise you; they’re always something more than caricatures.

The real problem now, however, isn’t Hollywood satire — it’s those Republicans who seem eager to parody themselves in a mad dash for airtime and headlines. With straight faces, they demand Congressional hearings on “cancel culture,” claim the COVID vaccine has killed thousands, and even label the Capitol attack “a normal tourist visit.” They turn their hunger for power into a farce far beyond anything the cast of “Vice” could dream up.

Watching this debasement day-by-day, you almost want Adam McKay and his studio to offer Cheney’s family an apology.

Almost. It is hard to deny Dick Cheney was a worthy target of the arrows “Vice” aims at him.

But maybe just this: near the very end of the movie, we read about what’s happened since — we learn Liz was elected to Congress and her relationship with Mary remains broken. It would be nice if McKay dove back in here to update his story with its unexpected twist.

It could simply read: “Liz Cheney, profile in courage. (This is not a joke.)”

Everyone would know what he meant.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.