Four years removed from serving two terms as George W. Bush’s powerful and polarizing vice president, Dick Cheney is still capable of sending tremors through the Force, whether it’s the continuation of unprecedented post-9/11 security policies he helped put in place, or movie critics who describe Zero Dark Thirty as a thriller that Cheney would love. While in office, Cheney routinely batted away shrill liberal critics who callously vilified him as some all-powerful Sith Lord manipulating the levers of government from above, but in the new Sundance Film Festival documentary The World According to Dick Cheney, he’s taking questions on the most controversial aspects of his career. Documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who produced the 1993 inside look at Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, The War Room, sat down with the man Cutler believes is “the most significant non-presidential political figure in our nation’s history.”
But don’t expect any Robert McNamara Fog of War reversals. Cheney may have had a heart transplant last March, but he’s still undeniably Dick Cheney, and his stubborn defiance will likely infuriate his enemies and inspire his supporters. “This is definitely a film that people are going to bring their own political convictions to,” says Cutler. “I’m really not entering from a political point of view; I’m entering from a filmmaking point of view. He himself has said that his vice-presidency was the most consequential and controversial vice-presidency we’ve ever had, so my agenda, if you want to call it that, was to explore who this man is.”
Click below for exclusive footage from the doc’s opening moments.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Vice-President Cheney seems like he could have been a tough recruit for a film like this. What was the courtship like?
R.J. CUTLER: I think the key to getting him to agree to participate was patience. We worked on the film for close to nine months before Vice President Cheney invited me to sit down with him and discuss the film. And it was a few months later in June 2012 that I went to Wyoming and sat with him for four days of interviews. As always, I think that people who have agreed to let me make movies about them, whether it’s James Carville and George Stephanopoulos or Anna Wintour, are driven in part by their desire to have their story told. I’m eager to tell their story and to tell it in a way that doesn’t enter the process with preconceived notions or an agenda, but first and foremost, with curiosity. And that’s what I told the Vice President, and it was very important to me that this film take the form of a dialog and that his voice be as central in that dialog as anybody else’s.
You didn’t already know him?
We met the day that I went to his house for lunch. We spoke for a couple of hours, and I guess we quite enjoyed our conversation. And then we had a really, deeply fascinating for four days, in which I interviewed him for five hours a day about his whole life, his life’s work, his personal history, and all of the things you see in the film. He was extremely forthcoming and giving of his time. And then on the fifth day, we went fly-fishing.
Your film with Cheney, I think, will draw some comparisons to Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, which captured Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara second-guessing his actions as Defense Secretary a generation later. Cheney, on the other hand, doesn’t flinch in the slightest.
He is not a man in retreat. Even as the world around him has changed, his position has been steadfast, and that in and of itself is a fascinating thing. I happen to believe that conviction is a necessary element of a successful democracy. But the question of course is when does complete conviction serve a democracy and when does it not. That’s a question we need to be exploring in this film.
There are moments where you’d ask Cheney a question, and he’d answer quickly, clearly, briefly — and then clam shut with the camera waiting on him to say more. How long did those silences seem at the time?
To me, people are revealing in all sorts of ways. They’re revealing in the things they say and then sometimes in the things that they don’t say. Those silences are very important to the film. I will tell you that over a four day period, Vice President Cheney didn’t refuse to answer a single question — except the one when I ask him to tell me what [his future wife] Lynne said to him the day that she clearly threatened to leave him unless he got his life together after he had failed out of Yale and been arrested for the second time for driving under the influence. That was the only thing he did not fully address.
As someone who frequently disagreed with him during his years in office, I have to say that I was nevertheless often oddly comforted by his innate sense of competence. He was always so sure and seemingly credible — even when I believed completely the opposite of what he was telling me.
That is what I mean about this film. That, for you, is an incredible valuable thing to be exploring in what matters to you about leadership. And at what point in the arc of the life of the leader who has that kind of absolute conviction are you comforted, and at what cost are you willing to continue to be comforted. It’s a really, really interesting thing. There’s a reason why we are still to this day debating what Cheney refers to as enhanced interrogation techniques and why it’s such a provocative subject and why it’s something that long after the American public has clearly stated it’s not a direction that we want our national policy to go in, we still talk a lot about it, and why Zero Dark Thirty is so provocative.
I suspect there will be some liberal viewers who will be disappointed and frustrated by the fact that Cheney doesn’t crack, that he hasn’t softened in retirement, that he refuses to admit mistakes. Do you anticipate people criticizing you for not being hard enough on him?
I don’t know. I certainly expect the full range of opinion on this film. And that full range of opinions are going to reflect the full range of opinions people have going in to a movie about Dick Cheney. But I also am confident that the film is illuminating and surprising and engaging and provocative in a way that I am extremely excited about. I’ve been very fortunate in that my two other political films have turned out to stand the test of time, and I feel that this film will become even more revealing over time as people are removed from the immediacy of the subjects that we explore. But I’m all in favor of a wide ranging of responses: to the film, to the man, to the issues that are explored here. So far, we’ve got an extremely gratifying response. The couple of screenings we’ve held, people tend to stay in the theater talking about it for a long time afterwards, often arguing about it and him. I’m all in favor of that.
The World According to Dick Cheney premieres at Sundance this Friday, Jan. 18.