In the opening moments of the new Showtime documentary The World According to Dick Cheney, the former vice president confesses that he "doesn't spend a lot of time" thinking about his faults. These unsurprising words set the tone for the rest of our journey with Dick Cheney in the film. However, The World According to Dick Cheney still manages to disappoint -- although we may not have expected Cheney to express regret over his actions, we might have at least expected a better justification.
The World According to Dick Cheney takes its viewer on a tour of Dick Cheney's life with Cheney playing host, as the film is centered around a series of lengthy interviews with the former vice president. Cheney describes his childhood in Wyoming, growing up in a Democratic household, early struggles with alcoholism, and getting his "big break" as an aide for Donald Rumsfeld during the Nixon administration. In one of the film's early turning points, Cheney confesses that he began his shift to the right of the political spectrum upon witnessing the government's crackdown on Vietnam War protesters during the late 1960's. It goes without saying that the same circumstances compelled other members of his generation to shift to the left, and the film's interviewer and director, R.J. Cutler, fails to press the vice president on this point. What inspired this shift? Why did Cheney reject the progressive, anti-war politics of so many other members of his generation? In short, what set Dick Cheney on a course to becoming Dick Cheney -- a titan of the hard right, and unapologetic assailant of American civil liberties? This last question is perhaps the most important unanswered question in the film.
One can, of course, certainly empathize with the film's director, and appreciate the challenge he faced in getting one of the world's most famously cagey interview subjects to open up. However, there is no justification for not better accounting for the development of Dick Cheney's political philosophy, so crucial to the narrative arc of the film. I tuned into The World According to Dick Cheney hoping to get a better sense of the man who helped to run one of the world's largest energy corporations, led the calls for U.S. intervention in Iraq, and served as the architect of an extremely innovative and invasive domestic security apparatus. Dick Cheney's legacy is vast. I was curious to find out what made Cheney tick, and why he thought his actions necessary. Upon viewing Cutler's portrait, I was still left wondering.
One thing, however, became very clear upon viewing The World According to Dick Cheney: the attacks of September 11, 2001 drastically expanded Cheney's sense of responsibility as vice president. In the early hours of the attack, as Bush read a picture book in a Florida classroom, it was Cheney who manned the command center in Washington, preparing for more attacks and giving orders to "take out" any hijacked aircraft destined for the White House. After 9/11, it seems that Cheney's determination to prevent another attack overran any potential concerns regarding adherence to the Geneva Conventions, Congressional oversight, or the violation of civil liberties. In the film, the former Vice President presents himself simply as a man who "did his job," with little time or patience for entertaining any thoughts of regret. There appears to be an invulnerable and dictatorial "core" to Cheney's moral sensibility that no one -- not even himself -- has access to. Darth Vader jokes aside, here is a man obviously at the mercy of his own unshakeable ethical code, however twisted it may be.
R.J. Cutler should be commended for his sensitive and effective use of archival footage, and interview sequences employed throughout the film. For nearly every Cheney interview clip, and contentious Cheney claim, there is a Bob Woodward or David Corn interview to counter, or at least question it. However, in the end, The World According to Dick Cheney is frustrating and deeply flawed -- much like its main subject.
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