Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that Dick Cheney earned a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. Cheney earned a master’s degree and left before finishing his PhD. This version has been corrected.
R.J. Cutler’s new documentary, “The World According to Dick Cheney,” finds the former vice president as resolute and indifferent as ever to his critics. What else did you expect — that the heart transplant would have magical effects? That he would have newfound doubts about his role in going to war against Iraq? That a little time and perspective would lead him to see the world any way other than the way he already sees it? If so, the joke’s still on you.
“I don’t go around thinking, ‘Gee, I wish we’d done this, or I wish I’d done that,’ ” Cheney says. “The world is as you find it, and you’ve got to deal with that. . . . You don’t get do-overs.” No regrets, no wishy-washiness. No duh. “I did what I did,” he says later, “and it’s all part of the public record and I feel very good about it. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it in a minute.”
The film, fresh from Sundance and having its television premiere Friday night on Showtime, is a sturdy but ultimately stifled exercise in the most polite methods of interrogation — to which its subject is entirely immovable and not prepared to surrender anything, even a smile. The lone artistic move in “The World According to Dick Cheney” is to hire actor Dennis Haysbert as narrator — the voice of Allstate insurance, presently, but, more important, the fictional president of the earliest seasons of Fox’s “24,” a show that absorbed some of our culture’s excess panic attacks about counterterrorism, torture and general millennial doom. Here, Haysbert’s voice is a nostalgic touch in a film that badly needs any help it can get to keep the viewer engaged.
Cutler, whose previous work includes co-producing “The War Room” (an unforgettable look at the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign) and directing “The September Issue” (a fascinating trip into Vogue magazine’s editorial process), patiently waited and wheedled for many months until Cheney agreed to sit for several hours of interviews. Cheney even let the crew come along on a Wyoming fishing trip, his first since a heart transplant last year. It’s a good get, but the results are probably not what anyone hoped.
So what are we doing here, for nearly two hours?
Mainly we are reciting large chunks of an unfinished Wikipedia entry on the 2000s, particularly the George W. Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. This is a subject about which a number of questions and a lot of acrimony remain; in many ways, we are still living through (and very much in) a world according to Dick Cheney.
“Tell me what terrorist acts you would let go forward because you didn’t want to be a mean and nasty fella?” Cheney responds when Cutler gently questions how the administration pushed for war, altered privacy rights and tortured detainees.
Cutler’s impulse is easy to understand: Like all men and women who’ve had a front seat to history, it’s important to get Cheney to talk about what he’s seen and learned while he’s still around to share it. He’s 72 and noticeably aged since 2009, but he’s looking healthier and certainly slimmer than he did during his time as veep.
At first, “The World According to Dick Cheney” behaves like a biography, taking us to Wyoming in the 1950s, where young Dick grows up in an idyllic West. He flunks out of Yale, returns home to blue-collar jobs and a couple of drunken-driving arrests. His fiancee, Lynne Vincent, issues a straighten-up-and-fly-right ultimatum (not unlike the one Laura Bush once issued to her husband), and this seems to propel Cheney to larger ambitions.
A remarkable turnaround follows over the next decade or so, in which Cheney almost earns a PhD in political science (while deferring the Vietnam draft until he ages out of it, which goes unmentioned here, as does the fact that he didn’t complete his doctorate), moves to Washington, works for and befriends Donald Rumsfeld, survives the Nixon White House and becomes President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of staff while still in his early 30s. Cheney then spends a decade in Congress; President George H.W. Bush appoints him defense secretary in 1989; then there’s the Persian Gulf War in 1991 . . .
I know most of you know all this, but it seems Cutler doesn’t know that most of you know all this. As it loses steam, “The World According to Dick Cheney” forgets that it’s supposed to be a movie and not the bullet points in a man’s résumé. Lynne Cheney is hardly anywhere to be found (a real loss in terms of humanizing backstory and an engaging talker), and there is no mention of Cheney as the father who bucked GOP tradition to publicly support his daughter Mary’s same-sex relationship rights. The fishing trip we see is purely for the camera’s benefit, and there is no color or candidness to be had here, no narrative flow, and nothing to learn that we can’t look up or recall on our own. Cutler doesn’t even ask about the 2006 hunting incident.
Like all documentaries that are essentially contemporary biographies, there is a small industry of journalists, book writers, think-tankers and former associates who supply a drop or two of the necessary sauce. Together, they sketch a portrait we’ve seen before, that of the obstinate master manipulator holed away in the undisclosed location. Nothing says that better than the carefully selected news clips and Sunday-morning talk show sequences — plenty to go around — in which Cheney and company assert broader power and insist that Saddam Hussein is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.
None of this looks old enough yet to entice us to take a short trip in the time machine. It’s hard to imagine who will watch “The World According to Dick Cheney” and come away satisfied or newly informed; even those prone to froth angrily at the mere mention of Cheney’s name will have to work extra hard to get outraged all over again. That era is still cooking — and still raw in the center. Cutler indeed got his interview, but he’s serving it at least a decade too soon.
(110 minutes) premieres at 9 p.m. Friday on Showtime, with encores.