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Sundance Review: 'The World According to Dick Cheney' offers no apologies
R.J. Cutler doc will premiere on Showtime this spring
I watched "The World According to Dick Cheney" last week to talk with director R.J. Cutler about the doc, which is set to air on Showtime in March.
I found the film to be informative and compulsively infuriating in intriguing ways. And in the 15 minutes I chatted with Cutler -- that interview will run closer to the Showtime premiere -- it became very, very, very clear that the fascination I felt with "The World According to Dick Cheney" wasn't, in any particular way, in synch with Cutler's perception of his own movie. This doesn't bother me. An artist creates work and puts it out there for interpretation. I've often interviewed filmmakers about projects I actively disliked and that they thought were brilliant, or at least they professed to at the time. This isn't that sort of thing. In fact, I mostly mention the discordance here because it's somewhat less frequent that I get into disagreements with filmmakers over the nature of something that I quite liked.
Realistically, "The World According to Dick Cheney" is, as you might guess, designed to be a litmus test sorta movie and many reactions are going to hinge on your position on the political spectrum and your interpretation of what Cutler was or wasn't able to get from Dick Cheney.
I rewatched "The World According to Dick Cheney" at its premiere on Friday (January 19) afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival and even watching with Cutler's words in my head -- not necessarily something a critic should normally try to do -- I came away with my opinion -- still positive -- and my perception still intact.
Your perception, like R.J. Cutler's perception, may vary. [Note that Greg Finton is also credited as director on "The World According to Dick Cheney," though it's still called "an R.J. Cutler film."]
Full review after the break...
Dick Cheney has been in a forthcoming mood lately. In addition to submitting to a series of interviews with Cutler for this project, he also went on the record for Discovery's upcoming "The Presidents' Gatekeepers."
Or maybe Cheney has just been in an accommodating mood. "Forthcoming" isn't exactly the right word to use, since Cheney has never exactly been a shrinking violet when it came to getting his opinion on the record and Cheney has never been one to shift in the breeze. What Dick Cheney thinks is what Dick Cheney thinks and you've probably formed a solid opinion on him as a result. Few figures in politics have been more polarizing or more powerful and his level of perpetual certitude never wavered, whether he was making public appearances or on "Meet the Press."
And it isn't wavering in "The World According to Dick Cheney." This is not a "Fog of War"-style documentary about an aging man experiencing retrospection and reconsideration. Nor does it intend to be. Robert McNamara and Dick Cheney are not especially similar people.
For a brief moment, though, some viewers will be fooled into thinking that "The World According to Dick Cheney" finds the former Vice President ready to show himself in a different light.
Cutler opens the documentary with Cheney not quite in repose, but certainly with his guard down. Culled from pre-interview footage, we see Cheney sipping coffee and inquiring about technical aspects of the conversation. Cutler then warms Cheney up with a series of general questions meant to draw him out. We learn that Cheney's favorite food is spaghetti, that his favorite virtue is "integrity" and, when asked to evaluate his greatest fault, Cheney replies, "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my faults, would be the answer." We then cut to casual Dick Cheney going on his first fishing trip since his heart transplant. We see his hands shaking as he baits his hook and I confess that my mind went to a favorite "Simpsons" quote as an art critic examines Marge's unflattering portrait of Mr. Burns and declares, "He's bad, but he'll die. So I like it." [That's not to say that Dick Cheney's death would make me happy or that I've invested much thought in that fate. It's to note how in artistic representation, signs of weakness can often tame the wildest of beasts.]
That's not what "The World According to Dick Cheney" is. I referred to the doc opening with Cheney's "guard down," but that implies that once the interviews are rolling and Dick Cheney is back to looking like the Dick Cheney you knew and loved/hated, that his guard was "up." That would be an incorrect implication. If any reaction to "The World According to Dick Cheney" is universal, it's likely to be the sense that Dick Cheney means what he says and says what he means. It's all very matter-of-fact.
As Cheney puts it, "The world is as you find it. You've gotta deal with that."
After that aforementioned opening and a brief pre-nod to September 11, 2001, "The World According to Dick Cheney" examines Cheney's basically unprecedented clout and his unlikely rise from a seemingly dead-ended young man with multiple DUIs by the age of 22, to an influential position in the White House a decade later, doing so in very linear fashion. The early autobiographical sketch is simple and humanizing -- I swear Cheney smiles once or twice and maybe even makes a joke -- but it gives the illusion/expectation that a fuller portrait is intended. Lynn Cheney, for example, makes an early appearance to discuss their courtship. She vanishes from the movie. Cheney's children are never mentioned. Is their exclusion a factor of the story Cutler wanted to tell or a factor of the version of himself that Cheney wanted to present? I don't know. Are his long marriage and his family important pieces to what the Congressman/Defense Secretary/CEO/VP Cheney became? I don't know.
In fact, I can't say that I know much of what Cheney *feels* about anything. Cutler wasn't on a dirt-digging mission and Cheney is an expert poker player, so expert that if you come to "The World According to Dick Cheney" looking for his feelings about either President Bush, about Nixon, about Ford, you're sure to be frustrated, or somewhat entranced by his caginess. [His distaste for Nelson Rockefeller and Condoleezza Rice are more visible.] Even more so than his marriage, the Cheney relationship that gets fleshed out in "The World According to Dick Cheney" is the one with Donald Rumsfeld, which practically makes up the heart of the movie.
Regarding feelings, Cheney says that he's often asked how he felt on 9/11. His response? "People say 'How did you feel?' Well, that's not the way I think about it. I had a job to do." That goes for many things in this version of Cheney's life.
In addition to taking Cheney's personal life out of the equation, Cutler also largely elides his time in Congress -- Perhaps Cutler's work on the Ollie North senate doc "A Perfect Candidate" left him uninterested in delving into Iran-Contra again? -- and renders Cheney's stint at Haliburton to a footnote. Again, the question becomes one of Cutler's interest in these years or Cheney's eagerness to discuss them. Given the doc's later interest in Cheney's confrontational relationship with the legislative branch of government, I personally would have been interested in how Cheney functioned within the House for a decade.
The meat of the documentary follows Cheney's journey from the head of George W. Bush's vice presidential search committee to his time as one of the most influential vice presidents in our history. Looking back on this period, Cheney alternates between being open and candid -- his memories of 9/11 are especially interesting -- and offering constant reminders that just because the left-leaning viewer may think he should have revised an opinion or two, he has no interest in regret.
Cutler mostly goes unheard in the documentary, but there are several points in the last section when he includes his questions [or Finton's questions] seemingly as a way of reassuring viewers that the probing queries were made, even if the responses wouldn't be effusive enough to appear in the film any other way.
For example, does Cheney believe now that waterboarding could be considered torture? "I don't," he says simply.
Expounding further on whether the Bush administration policy on torture (or other facets of the so-called "One Percent Doctrine" might be lamentable, Cheney declares, "Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor?"
It feels like "The World According to Dick Cheney" features less and less of Cheney's actual voice as it progresses. A slew of talking heads, some journalists and some functionaries within Cheney's political sphere, start carrying more and more of the narrative. The first time I watched, I was convinced Cheney vanished almost entirely. The second time through, I noticed more of Cheney, but much of what he's saying is uninflected historical fact, so it was forgettable. I didn't have a stopwatch either time, but I'm sure there's more of narrator Dennis Haysbert in the movie's last third than there is of Cheney.
Although there are supporters and adversaries among the talking heads, the rhetoric is generally pragmatic and perhaps slightly more dispassionate than one might expect from a film about Dick Cheney. I have no doubt that some viewers will gnash their teeth wishing Cutler was trussing Cheney more tightly to the burning stake, while others will spot liberal bias around every corner. [Rumsfeld is the biggest name Cutler got for the talking head segments and, as I mentioned, he's my favorite part of the movie. Unlike Cheney, he has experienced some ideological evolution. "The World According to Donald Rumsfeld" would be an engaging movie.]
Returning to the different perceptions, I enjoyed "The World According to Dick Cheney" because I felt like I was watching a filmmaker shift on the fly to accommodate a variably reticent subject, shifting storytelling based as much on what Cheney wasn't saying as what he was. For his part, Cutler insisted this was exactly the film he set out to make from the first time he sat down with Cheney.
He's probably right, but my own interpretation kept me musing for a long time on "The World According to Dick Cheney," a documentary that probably won't change how you feel about the guy, but may impact the way you think about him.
Other 2013 Sundance Film Festival Reviews: