CAMBRIDGE — Introducing “Vice” at a private screening he organized at the Brattle Theatre on Thursday night, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind called the absurdist Dick Cheney biopic “an American Rorschach,” commenting to a crowd that the film’s divisive reviews say as much about today’s polarized political climate as director Adam McKay’s exuberant approach.
Suskind, of Cambridge, authored “The One Percent Doctrine,” about the Bush administration’s counterterrorism tactics; so respected is his knowledge of Cheney that he was shown an early cut of “Vice” and met with McKay and star Christian Bale (who last week won a Golden Globe for the role) to offer notes.
But on Thursday, Suskind tapped two individuals who’ve also spent quite a bit of time studying the former VP: McKay, who addressed the audience via prerecorded video message, and counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, who joined Suskind for a post-film Q&A.
Apologizing for canceling his Brattle appearance over health concerns (he suffered a heart attack while working on “Vice”), McKay called Cheney a “man of mystery,” a label that Clarke — a Dorchester native who served in three White Houses, including both Bushes — spent time unpacking.
Lauding Bale’s performance as “indistinguishable,” Clarke reflected on watching 9/11 transform Cheney, a scene “Vice” dramatizes. “We all had PTSD from that day,” said Clarke. “He had it more than anyone. People say there are two Dick Cheneys: the one before 9/11, and the one after.”
However, Clarke — who has sharply criticized the George W. Bush administration — had little sympathy for Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, portrayed by Acton-bred Steve Carell, as the veep’s partner in crime.
“They knew where the levers of power were, and they pulled them,” said Clarke, growing somber as he recalled apologizing to families of 9/11 victims in 2004, by which time a US-organized coalition had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a strategy Clarke says Cheney favored long before 9/11. “They were planning it from early on and already had 11 National Security Council meetings about Iraq,” said Clarke. “It wasn’t a question of whether we were going to invade: it was what the sequencing was.”
Also in attendance at the private screening: former UN ambassador Samantha Power, historian Jill Lepore, folklore scholar Maria Tatar, public policy lecturer Marshall Ganz, surgeon Atul Gawande, disability activists Jay and Shira Ruderman, MGH president Peter Slavin and his wife, Lori, and Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell.
Some gathered across the street at the Sinclair afterward for drinks and hors d’oeuvres; predictably, politics and pop culture dominated free-wheeling discussions that lasted until around midnight.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.