PARK CITY, UTAH — There are few people on the planet less likely to find a sympathetic hearing from Sundance Film Festival regulars — whose politics tend to be on the leftmost fringe of entertainment liberalism — than former Vice President Dick Cheney. But in The World According to Dick Cheney, which debuted at Sundance tonight, RJ Cutler complicates the image of George W. Bush’s right-hand man.
After interviewing Cheney for 20 hours over the course of a week, Cutler (who also directed The War Room and The September Issue) allows the former Vice President to bring viewers along on his meteoric rise. At 34, he was the youngest White House Chief of Staff in history when he guided Gerald Ford’s administration. But it was his role in the Bush years that gave new meaning to the term “polarizing.” Cutler’s film is fascinating, if sometimes uncomfortable, to watch as he goes through the battles of the Bush term — from the torture debates to WMD — through the eyes of one who sees them without an ounce of regret.
The film opens with a close-up for the laconic Cheney in coat and tie, giving terse answers to a rapid-fire series of questions.
“What is the greatest misery?”
“Losing a family member.”
“What is your favorite food?”
“What is your greatest fault?”
Pause. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.”
Those looking to see a man humbled or groveling before history will come away infuriated; indeed, as Cutler described it in a conversation with BuzzFeed after the premiere screening, “This is not a man in retreat.”
Cutler said he focused on Cheney after deciding he wanted to do another political documentary about “a figure who was central to his times. He’s such a monumental figure. I wanted to see how his relationships affected him, his relationship with Rumsfeld and with Bush.” He spent seven months wooing Cheney before he was granted his four days with him — and was invited out fly-fishing on the fifth.
Cutler said, “Cheney demonstrates a number of virtues that I think in the abstract we would identify as things we want in our leaders. Piercing intellect. A loyalty that leads him to jeopardize his relationship with the President of the United States. Conviction. Passion. Patriotism. All of these things and yet those who disagree with him, don’t recognize them as virtues.”
At the premiere screening, the film was largely well received. Only four people in the Q&A session that followed demanded to know how Cutler could make a film about such a “sociopath.” But Cutler made clear that the film is not intended to exonerate or whitewash Cheney’s career. It is, in fact, filled with statements by Washington journalists and historians, many of whom number among the Vice President’s harshest critics.
But, Cutler said, he was interested in giving a fuller understanding of this man who played such a pivotal role in U.S. history. “This film is not intended to put Vice-President Cheney on trial. This is a film that examines him with an eye towards history and a sense of perspective on his entire career,” he said. “This examines the narrative of a man who was formed in a certain way, whose relationships affected him in a certain way, who managed to get himself into power at a critical moment in American history. Who had a huge impact on our country. And who in spite of the fact that the entire world changed around him, did not change with it.”