Though he has retired to a life of hunting and fly fishing, former vice president Dick Cheney's shadow looms large over Washington. Documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler, whose past credits include "The War Room" and "The September Issue," takes on his legacy in "The World According to Dick Cheney," chronicling his humble Wyoming beginnings, his Machiavellian rise as youngest White House chief of staff ever during the Ford administration, and his eventual tenure as vice president, where he expanded the office and altered the course of American history. Cutler discussed the film and what it took to get Cheney on board with the project with U.S. News.
Why did you decide to take on Cheney as a subject?
Vice President Cheney is as significant a non-presidential political figure this country has ever known and I wanted to tell his story in a way that examined his history and his key relationships, his relationship to power, the ways in which he acquired it, the policies he championed and the ways in which he made those policies American policy. Not only for a deeper understanding for today, but in a way that would aid the conversation as history looks back on his life and career, and America in the wake of September 11th.
How did you present this project to Cheney to get him to sign on board?
I wrote him a letter saying that I was eager to tell his story with his voice at the center of the story. I was patient and waited several months—seven months exact—for him to respond, and to invite me to the Washington area to have lunch with him and discuss what I was looking to do. In that conversation we spoke about what my goals were with the film, the themes I was compelled by, and asked if he would be part of it. He was familiar with [some of Cutler's films] ... A week or so later I received a call saying he was very much on board.
Since he since he left office, people have tended to vilify him. How did you resist that stereotype?
I started from a position of curiosity about the man, and the figure, and that's what I did. I wasn't reacting to the way in which he is presented on late night television. It wasn't part of the approach for me. I was driven by curiosity about who he is, where he came from, what he did, and how he did what he did, who the key relationships were and all of those things.
What surprised you the most?
I am very struck by the way in which the lessons of the early Cheney-Rumsfield relationship, that were applied very successfully in their acquisition of power within the Ford administration, were similarly applied in their acquisition of power in the George W. Bush administration. It's an example of truth bettering fiction. If you had written it that way, if you had made that up, it would have seem obvious. But here they are as young men, basically gutting the Ford administration, seeing the opportunity to acquire power, and then decades later there's deep resonance in the way they acquire enormous power within the George W. Bush administration. The direct line between those two things is very, very striking to me.
In terms of things that he said—there were a great deal of things that he said that were very striking—perhaps most of all is his comparison of honor and duty, when we were discussing what he calls "enhanced interrogation," and his dismissal, it seems, of honor as a value in the face of duty. It doesn't seem like it's even a question as to whether one would sacrifice one's honor to do one's duty, and I think that raises very significant questions about who are and want to be as a nation and it illuminates his value system very, very clearly, in his own words.
Some people would like to leave the Bush years behind them—why should we be stepping back and looking at their legacy?
What is there about the years of the George W. Bush administration [that] American history isn't going to examine thoroughly and deeply and forever? Those who just kind of want to move on, I understand the emotional aspect of that, but this isn't a movie made from an emotional point of view. This is a movie made with an eye towards history. It's a movie made very much wanting to be part of the conversation of how history will look back at the life and career, key relationships, acquisition and use of power, policies accorded and enacted by Dick Cheney.