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Golden Globes' celebration of 'Vice' collides with the Bush funeral's celebration of virtue

Golden Globes' celebration of 'Vice' collides with the Bush funeral's celebration of virtue
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in "Vice," which earned a leading six Golden Globes nominations. (Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures)

Hollywood figuratively crashed the funeral Thursday.

Even as President George H.W. Bush was being laid to rest in Houston following a final service and several days of heartfelt eulogies, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. celebrated the movie “Vice,” a scathing biopic that blames former Vice President Dick Cheney — and the man who empowered him, George W. Bush — for much of the modern world’s problems.

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Although it has yet to be released, or even reviewed, “Vice” led all movies with six Golden Globes nominations — best picture comedy, nods for Adam McKay’s direction and screenplay and acting recognition for Christian Bale, who plays Cheney; Amy Adams who plays his wife, Lynne; and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.

The timing of the nominations wasn’t intended to send a message, or at least not a message to directly compete with the days of eulogies preceding the burial. The HFPA — composed of 88 active members representing 55 countries — voted before Bush died last Friday.

Nonetheless, the group’s praise for “Vice,” a film that vilifies the Bush-Cheney administration for the Iraq war, the use of torture, the no-bid government contracts to Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, and a host of other ills, comes at an odd moment of synchronicity.

“I really think the movie in some ways mirrors the times that we live in, and half the time I can’t decide if we’re living in an absurdist comedy or a Greek tragedy,” “Vice” writer-director Adam McKay told The Times in a phone interview. “And that’s kind of the way the movie is, there are parts that are very tragic and dark and there are parts that are very absurd.”

Since Bush’s death, the former president has been lauded for his tenure as a Navy pilot in World War II and his dedication to family and country, with former President Barack Obama calling Bush’s life a “testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling.”

Cheney, who served as Bush’s Defense secretary, added his voice to the admirers, appearing on Fox News and “Meet the Press” in recent days to extol the way Bush “masterfully handled” the end of the Cold War.

Asked to name the best attributes the elder Bush passed to his president son, Cheney answered: “Well, he hired me, for one thing.”

Cheney’s response was (probably) a joke, but it also underscored how the passage of time often softens the public’s view of even the most disliked politicians. At the time of his death, one-term President Bush enjoyed a 64% approval rating, according to a recent Gallup poll — nearly double the number he scored during his final year as president.

“They love to do that … don’t they?” McKay said. “They kind of rehab everyone. Remember when Nixon was coming out years ago, ‘Oh, he’s kind of an elder statesman.’ You knew it was going to happen as well with Cheney. Everyone goes from being questionable, being challenged, being controversial to being venerable. It’s kind of the American way.”

“Vice” wasn’t the only political movie the HFPA feted Thursday. The group gave Spike Lee’s latest film, “BlacKkKlansman,” four nominations, including nods for drama picture, director and actors John David Washington and Adam Driver.

Based on a true story, the indie hit followed a black detective who infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s with the help of a white colleague. Critics praised it as a sharp, funny and very blunt critique of bigotry in America.

“What [co-screenwriter] Kevin [Willmott] and I wanted to do is make a hip period piece that is about today,” Lee told The Times last month. “And it wasn’t that hard to do. So much of this hate stuff is recycled. Agent Orange did not come up with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ Or ‘America First.’ That was used by the Klan in the 1920s.”

“Black Panther,” the Marvel blockbuster that became the third-highest-grossing movie in the U.S., was also front and center Thursday, the first Marvel film to earn a Golden Globe nomination. It picked up three, including best picture drama. The recognition comes two days after the American Film Institute named it one of the year’s 10 best movies, putting it on track to become the first superhero movie nominated for the best picture Oscar.

With a story focused on black women and men living in a thriving African homeland not corrupted by colonialists, “Black Panther” raised a number of serious issues, including the costs of slavery on the black consciousness and the methods people can use to escape with good conscience to escape oppression.

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Cast member Angela Bassett, in an interview with The Times, highlighted the movie’s use of the line “bury me in the ocean with my ancestors because freedom is more desirable than bondage.”

“If you’re black in America and have read history, you unpack that,” she said. “It’s more than one sentence. It’s a whole history lesson.”

Though Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate, Spanish-language family drama “Roma” was, thanks to HFPA rules, ineligible for the best picture drama category, it did earn nominations for Cuarón for screenplay and direction as well as foreign-language film.

Though “Roma” is not overtly political, its personal story of a poor, young, indigenous woman caring for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s is told with a tenderness that stirs a loving, lasting empathy for its characters.

“What is very gratifying and very surprising is how in different places in the world, the emotional response is so strong to the film,” Cuarón told The Times. “And this makes me happy because it’s a reminder that the human experience is one and the same, that we are pretty much the same.”

The HFPA didn’t shy away from crowd-pleasers, heaping nominations on Disney’s upcoming musical “Mary Poppins Returns,” the commercial hit “A Star Is Born” and “Green Book,” an audience favorite that started slow at the box office but seems to be sticking around thanks to strong word of mouth.

The latter film, a road-trip movie about a rude, resourceful hustler (Viggo Mortensen) hired to drive a cultured, black classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962, takes a gentler, more optimistic view of race relations in the States. Some critics hail it as a balm for these divisive times; others find it out of step.

Certainly no one from “Green Book” will be inviting Sarah Palin to be their date for the Globes ceremony, as did prankster Sacha Baron Cohen, nominated for comedy television actor for his Showtime series “Who Is America?” The show’s second episode featured Cohen playing a character identified as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert asking — you guessed it — Cheney to autograph a “waterboard kit.” The former vice president obliged. It is unclear whether Cheney was in on the joke.

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“This show was a labor of love for over two years,” Baron Cohen said in a statement. “It is a shame they overlooked the amazing performances by the rest of the cast, particularly Dick Cheney and Roy Moore. Meanwhile Ms. Palin, despite being cut from the show, I hope you will accept my invitation to be my date for the ceremony.”

Palin, at least for the moment, has not responded.

Times staff writers Mark Olsen and Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.

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