“What’s your favorite virtue?”
So begins The World According to Dick Cheney, the third film in director R.J. Cutler’s trilogy of American political documentaries. Cutler, serving as interviewer in this opening sequence, lobs a few humanizing softballs at history’s most “consequential” vice president – Cheney’s word, not mine – and ends with Cheney’s chilling lack of introspection.
After the film’s whirlwind exploration of Cheney’s 40 long years of public service, what lingers in the air is this same spooky realization that despite everything – the Iraq War, the absence of WMD’s, the warrantless surveillance, the discoveries at Abu Ghraib – Cheney regrets nothing. “If I had to do it over again,” Cheney says at the end of the film. “I’d do it over in a minute.”
Presented quite simply The World According to Dick Cheney (co-directed and edited by Greg Finton) is a compilation of 20 hours of interview footage between Cutler and Cheney, interspersed with black and white images of Cheney’s youth, his early days in the White House, and footage of all the major historical events that came after. The voices of introspection and analysis come from neither Cutler nor Cheney but from a chorus of journalists, analysts, and biographers who fill in those gaping holes. Critics of the film will say that Cutler never pushes Cheney far enough; we don't get to the heart of Cheney’s bionic heart. Cutler instead allows Cheney to make shocking statement after shocking statement, all without ever having to explain himself. That said, Cheney's life philosophy comes through loud and clear: stick to your guns (quite literally) and it doesn’t matter a lick if anyone likes you.
In many ways the film is a portrait of Cheney’s career-long relationship with Donald Rumsfeld – his mentor in political power and manipulation, “Cheney and Rumsefeld are almost like one person,” says author Ron Suskind at one moment during the film– as well as his fraught relationship with President George W. Bush. Cheney repeatedly reminds Cutler that Bush wanted a consequential vice president, and a consequential vice president is exactly what he got. No longer operating under the illusion of camaraderie necessitated during their reign, Cheney fully dispenses with the pretense of “we” when referring to Bush and instead discusses the actions of the administration in the first person.
It is no wonder that in his memoir Bush repeatedly describes feeling “blindsided” during his presidency. In Cheney's version of American history Bush is an afterthought and a figurehead, the crowd-pleaser who goes to bat for a team without any hint of what he's up against. Cutler describes Cheney as cherry picking the facts he presented to the inexperienced Bush, most notably and chillingly evident in the warrantless domestic surveillance program which the Justice Department deemed illegal. We learn that our "consequential" vice president managed to keep Bush in the dark throughout the scandal with the president only being clued in seemingly hours before a flood of mass resignations would have sunk his bid for a second term. Cheney, characteristically, regrets nothing. “I would’ve let them all resign,” he tells Cutler.
In the end, Cheney and Rumsfeld loom throughout the film as Praetorian Guards bullying decades of politicians into executing their agenda of delusion. Bush becomes almost a tragic fool, a perfect puppet for their brand of manipulation.
Quite obviously, Cheney is a genius when it comes to political power. He knows the buttons to push, the insecurities to latch onto, and the alliances to make. The World According to Dick Cheney shows a man of genius, but a man averse to self-reflection and unscathed by using his powers for evil instead of good. “I don’t lie awake at night thinking, gee, what are they going to say about me?” he sums up. Cheney may be sleeping soundly, but America is still dealing with the fallout from his master plan.
The World According to Dick Cheney premieres March 15 on Showtime at 9 p.m. Eastern.