“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults,” Dick Cheney says at the very beginning of the new Showtime documentary “The World According to Dick Cheney.”
No, he doesn’t, and especially not during this nearly two-hour movie from R.J. Cutler (“The War Room”). Faced with questions on his belief in waterboarding and his push to invade Iraq for its alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, George W. Bush’s vice president defends his decisions in a passionless, blasé manner. He exhibits about as much introspection as the cold fish we see him trying to catch when Cutler follows him on a fly-fishing trip in Wyoming.
I can’t say I expected Cheney to reverse himself on anything in this movie; that particular quality does not seem to be in his psychological toolbag. But I did expect a more engaged and insightful exercise in retrospect. Cutler’s interviews with Cheney are merely a series of familiar denials and justifications, with an excess of lines such as “If you want to be loved, go be a movie star,” “You don’t get a lot of credit for what didn’t happen,” and “Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor?” Cheney’s last words in the film may be all you need to hear: “I did what I did. It’s all on the public record. And, um, I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”
Perhaps as they looked into Cheney’s imperious eyes, Cutler and his directing partner, Greg Finton, decided against pressing him harder on critical topics. We don’t hear most of the questions, so it’s hard to say. But the result is a slog that primarily revisits recent history without much in the way of fresh perspective, from 9/11 through Cheney’s anger at Bush’s refusal to pardon Scooter Libby. All the news footage of the past 15 or so years just sits there, attached to short pieces of commentary by reporters and authors including Bob Woodward, Jo Becker, and Charlie Savage, as well as by Donald Rumsfeld. Dennis Haysbert provides narration.
The movie, which premieres Friday night at 9 as part of Showtime’s new documentary series, delves briefly into Cheney’s early years. After failed attempts to stay at Yale, two drunken driving arrests, and a motivational push from his fiancee, Lynne Vincent, he graduated from the University of Wyoming, where he studied political science. On campus in the 1960s, he says, he “was not an opponent of the war” in Vietnam. We hear of his tight bond with Rumsfeld, who provided him with entree to President Ford’s White House, and of his attempt to run for the presidency against Bill Clinton, and his retreat to become the CEO of Halliburton. He describes his powerful role in the Bush administration as part of Bush’s desire to have a “consequential” vice president.
In the flow of these and other big topics, including the advent of warrantless surveillance of Americans, the movie is numbingly professional and detached. Cheney repeats his prefab explanations regarding torture or Abu Ghraib or Saddam Hussein’s “capability” and “intent” and we move on. There is no sense of who Cheney is, beyond his restatements. Less specifically political issues, such as Cheney’s hunting accident or his decision to support gay marriage in light of his lesbian daughter, Mary, are completely overlooked. So are any glimpses into Cheney as a father and a husband. The most personal information we get is that his favorite food is spaghetti. That is the big reveal in this unnecessary look back.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.