The Villain Speech in “Vice”

We said in last week’s post that the Villain sees the world as a zero-sum game.

This is a corollary to another aspect of the classic antagonist’s view of life as a war of all-against-all. To re-quote Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) from Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men:

COLONEL JESSUP

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it!

This is the exact POV that the filmmakers of Vice (written and directed by Adam McKay) give to their protagonist villain, Dick Cheney. In the final scene of the film, the VP is being interviewed for television.

Christian Bale as Vice President Dick Cheney in “Vice”

REPORTER

Two-thirds of Americans believe the Iraq War was not worth fighting. They’re looking at the value gained versus the cost in American lives and Iraqi lives.

CHENEY

So?

This quote, as I understand it, is literally true. The real Dick Cheney really did say it. If so, it is world-class Movie Villain material, worthy of Dr. No or Dr. Strangelove.

But the filmmakers don’t stop here. They use this line to jump off from, into a fuller expression of the Villain’s point of view. They have Cheney turn slowly toward the camera until he “breaks the fourth wall” and addresses the audience directly.

REPORTER

So, don’t you care what the American people think?

CHENEY

I think you … uh … cannot be … uh … blown off-course. (Sighs, turns further to speak directly to the audience). I can feel your recriminations and your judgment … and I am fine with them. You wanna be loved. You wanna be a movie star. The world is as you find it. You have to deal with that reality. There are monsters in this world. We saw three thousand innocent people burned to death by those monsters. And yet you object when I refuse to kiss those monsters on the cheek and say “Pretty please.” You answer me this: 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 family safe and I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night. (Sighs). It has been my honor to be your servant. You chose me. I did what you asked.

I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for Dick Cheney. The point of view he articulates (and that he acted upon and unrepentantly holds to this day) certainly cannot be called inaccurate or untrue to certain “realities” of the world and of human nature. Caesar would have echoed this view of life, as would have Alexander and Napoleon and scores of other real-life champions to whom we erect equestrian statues—and with good cause.

But this point of view—however practical, “realistic,” or even necessary in a Hobbesian world—is the point of view of the Villain.

Here’s Cliff Robertson as CIA officer Higgins in Three Days of the Condor, justifying to Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) a secret American plan to invade Saudi Arabia and seize the oil fields:

Robert Redford and Cliff Robertson in “Three Days of the Condor”

HIGGINS

Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?

TURNER

Ask then.

HIGGINS

Not now—then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for ’em!

(We’ll dig a little deeper into this—and consider the nature of the non-zero-sum character, the Hero—in the next few posts.)

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

12 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on July 3, 2019 at 7:02 am

    Somewhere along the say, somebody said: “Every villain is a hero in his/her own mind.” (Pronouns are hard these days.)

    I rewatched “Three Days of the Condor” for the third time last week. Great film. I think, however, if Joe Turner was really trying to be inconspicuous, he would have chose something else besides an orange Ford Bronco to drive around Manhattan.

    • Joe on July 3, 2019 at 9:16 am

      Somewhere ^along the way^

  2. Stephen M. Archer on July 3, 2019 at 8:07 am

    George Bernard Shaw was quoted to me as once saying “All men mean well.” I think he nailed it.

  3. Peter Brockwell on July 3, 2019 at 11:39 am

    The profundity of Steve’s insight. Wow, is all I can say. Thank you for your work Steve, and for offering it to us.

  4. Tobi - Bolaji Idowu on July 4, 2019 at 1:56 am

    Very enjoyable line of thought, can’t wait to see where it leads.

  5. AS on July 4, 2019 at 6:19 am

    Such an important understanding! And it branches out – has consequences. Like “the end justifies the means” is rooted in this sort of reasoning..leading to any amount of human-on-human violation. We can see this in family dynamics (narcs/socio&psychopaths destroying “loved ones”)all the way up to the global political front. Steve has just given up a really valuable story-building tool.

    Thank you!

  6. AS on July 4, 2019 at 6:20 am

    ‘given us a really valuable etc” I mean!

  7. David Tindell on July 4, 2019 at 8:01 am

    Sometimes it comes down to a zero-sum game. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and World War II. I asked my grandfather once, with regard to the war, “Did you ever think we were going to lose?” And he said, “No, never. We knew it would be tough, we knew we’d lose men, a lot of men, but we were going to win. We had to.” What few remember today is that there was an active appeasement group in the States right up till Pearl Harbor Day. Many prominent Americans, including Charles Lindbergh, were members, advocating loudly for some sort of understanding with Hitler and the Japanese. After 12/7/41, the appeasement crowd virtually vanished, almost overnight. America had entered into the ultimate zero-sum game. Franklin Roosevelt said the day after that, “The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” And he and his successor did whatever they felt necessary to achieve that victory. While I understand that sentiments like Cheney’s can be used to portray the “villain,” the same could be said of FDR.

    • Vernika on July 15, 2019 at 11:08 am

      My father bombed Dresden. He was 31.
      When, in his old age, I asked him if he had any regrets about it, he replied without hesitation and with a glint in his eye: “None.” I doubt he had ever heard the term ‘zero-sum game’, but he played it live in the mutual bombing raids during WWII.
      In civilian life, he was a devoted family man and a life-long Catholic with a traditional ‘meek’ Christian soul: hard-working, self-effacing, courteous, and generous. He and other men rarely spoke of the war, especially in the presence of women and children.
      My father died at the age of 89, pissed-off that he wouldn’t make 90.

  8. John Braddock on July 7, 2019 at 11:22 am

    Having met real-life villains, every one is dreaming of an end. They’re dreaming of a heaven, usually on earth. They’re dreaming of a place beyond war where their enemies are vanquished and their friends are rewarded. They’re dreaming of a future where they’re thanked and loved. They’re dreaming of a Positive-Sum Endgame. They start and continue Zero-Sum Games where they do terrible things and create conflict because they think that’s how they get to their dream.

  9. Larry Grant on July 21, 2019 at 9:09 am

    I don’t think it’s all that clear that some isolated situations in life are not zero-sum and can only be dealt with by zero-sum methods. That longer speech by Cheney could have been given by Shane in a voice-over as he rides into the darkness. Shane would have preferred to settle in peacefully. He could have abandoned the homesteaders, but as has been written he chose love instead, and put himself between them and Ryker and Wilson, barring the path and killing both.

    He does this eyes open knowing that recriminations will follow. In the judgment of the people he has saved, not immediately perhaps, but soon, he will be seen as a killer. and it turns out, he’s not fine with that.
    Foreseeing that outcome (and remember that his long experience with this response was the reason he’s on the trail to begin with), though he might have wanted be a farmer, he’s forced to say, “The world is as you find it. You have to deal with that reality. There are monsters in this world. We saw [insert #] innocent people [insert instrument] to death by those monsters. And yet you object when I refuse to kiss those monsters on the cheek and say “Pretty please.” You answer me this: what [insert modifier] 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 family safe and I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night.”

    (Sighs).

    “It has been my honor to [eat at your table and remove that stump]. You chose me. I did what you [wanted done].”

    In spite of the love his actions evinces, the hero has to respond in the zero-sum Hobbesian world for his action against the villain to be effective? Could the true zero-sum equation be that when a bad-guy is removed, the amount of good in the world increases and vice versa?

  10. Maddi on July 28, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    I cannot see a clear cut picture of a villain. For me there are no villains nor heroes, there is just intentions and actions fueled by emotions and desires. I find the villains motives behind his personality and agenda a great way to create a character with different levels, so that a reader can choose for themselves if they dislike the villain or if they feel something akin to pity and understanding – a bittersweet reaction. Of course they cannot win, but you can take the reader on a self insightful ride on the way.

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