One of the most revealing moments in The World According to Dick Cheney comes near the beginning, when documentarist R.J. Cutler asks the 46th U.S. Vice President, “What do you consider your main fault?” There’s a pause, before Cheney responds. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults, I guess would be the answer.”
It’s a fascinating entry into a polarizing, enigmatic figure who wielded unconventional power and few understood.
“It’s very provocative on the issues, but it’s not a film designed to settle political differences,” Cutler, who codirected with editor Greg Finton. “It explores the issues raised by Cheney’s life, career, and policies, and what they say about American democracy. The purpose was to really examine who this man is, and who, in spite of having never been elected to the presidency, is as significant a political figure as this country has ever known–a genuine titan in American political history, agree with him or not.”
Dick Cheney premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and debuts March 15 on Showtime, kicking off the cable network’s new documentary series, Sho Closeup, that profiles controversial newsmakers. Upcoming subjects include comedian Richard Pryor and former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Cutler is best known for the Oscar-nominated 1993 documentary, The War Room, a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign; A Perfect Candidate (1996), chronicling Oliver North’s unsuccessful 1994 run for U.S. Senate; and The September Issue (2009), which follows Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s preparation of the 2007 fall fashion issue. He is currently an executive producer of ABC’s Nashville.
Cutler had been looking for a way to revisit themes he’d explored in his earlier political documentaries. Opportunity arose when longtime friend David Nevins became Showtime’s president of entertainment in 2010 and tapped Cutler for the Cheney profile.
“R.J. has a unique combination of being very politically in tune and very character sensitive, says Nevins. “That intersection of personality and politics is really interesting–to understand the why and try to get a little bit inside. Dick Cheney is a person who was dominant in American politics from the 70s through the 21st century but been a little out of reach. You tend to know the personality of the president. But he’s been somewhat shielded, and I wanted to know what made him tick.”
When Nevins proposed the project, “I was immediately intrigued,” says Cutler, who embarked upon the film in July 2011. “The more research I did, the more reading about the vice president’s early life, career, and history, the more excited I got. When the vice president agreed to be interviewed, I knew there was a film to be made. But there was a lot of patience and faith required. We were working on the film for seven months before he invited me to have lunch with him and discuss the project.”
The on-camera interview finally took place last June, when Cutler spent some 20 hours with Cheney at his Wyoming ranch. The result is a look at his ascent from alcoholic Yale dropout to vice president during the 2001-2009 George W. Bush administration, framed through his 40-year relationship with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“His failure as a Yale student, his dropping out, his basically becoming a drunk who was spending more time in jail than he was pursuing his undergraduate degree, was impactful and resonant with the rest of his career,” says Cutler.
Throughout the film, Cutler steers clear of infusing his own politics in favor of exploring political concepts and human virtues expressed to such polarizing effect (though, reportedly, Cheney was still displeased by his portrayal in parts of the film).
“I don’t make these films to argue politics,” says Cutler. “My curiosity about him as a man and who he is drives me far more. There’s a dialogue and different points of view expressed on key moments in his personal and political history, but his voice is central to the film. This is a monumental figure on the world stage, and the fact that he and I don’t agree politically is entirely beside the point.
“This film continues a theme I explored in A Perfect Candidate, which asks the questions: `In a democracy, would you rather have somebody who agrees with you politically but doesn’t really believe in anything, or someone who disagrees with you politically but actually has conviction and passion? Does our system of government require men and women of conviction for it to succeed or people who only believe in getting themselves reelected, and in stopping the other side?’ I personally think you need conviction. This film further explores that theme, and then raises the question: ‘At what point is this too much?’
“There’s great revelation to be found in Dick Cheney asking if you would rather put a prisoner through enhanced interrogation techniques to simulate drowning in order to attempt to find out information or preserve what he refers to as your honor. When he said that to me, I was shocked, because I thought, `Well, wouldn’t we do anything to preserve our honor?’ And if not, is that where we draw the line? Is there a higher virtue than honor?
“You are unlikely to find a person across the country who doesn’t have a strong opinion about Dick Cheney–in favor or opposed,” Cutler continues. “Yet whether we agree or disagree with him, his defining qualities are ones we all recognize as virtues: fierce intelligence, commitment to work, patriotism, conviction, passion, loyalty. He’s willing to sacrifice his relationship with President Bush over what he believes is a duty he owed to a man [Rumsfeld] who’s been loyal to him. So if this is a man who has all these qualities that would be universally recognized as virtuous, where does the separation come in for those who don’t agree with him politically? It’s a really compelling question. I don’t mean to answer it; I mean to ask it.”
Lead photo: David Bohrer/Courtesy of Showtime