Television Review: ‘The World According to Dick Cheney,’ on Showtime

March 15th, 2013

David Bohrer/Showtime

Dick Cheney, then vice president, leading a meeting of top Bush administration officials immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Dick Cheney was often referred to as the Darth Vader of the Bush administration.

There are moments in “The World According to Dick Cheney” when this former vice president comes off more as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in “Rebecca.”

Both guided young, inexperienced prot?g?s to the brink with unflappable certitude, self-assurance and an unsettling monotone. They were so persistent and persuasive that it was almost a shock when it turned out that each had an id?e fixe that could burn down the house, or, in Mr. Cheney’s case, whole countries.

That’s not the overt message of this documentary, which will be broadcast Friday on Showtime and was made by R. J. Cutler, a producer of “The War Room” and director of “The September Issue.” This film, a long interview with Mr. Cheney interspersed with news clips and journalists and biographers, isn’t an expos? or an indictment, nor is it the kind of spooky character study that Errol Morris made of Robert S. McNamara in “The Fog of War.”

Mostly, it’s a self-portrait in black and white that is subsequently colored in by a Greek chorus of journalists and biographers and a narrator who sounds omniscient because it’s Dennis Haysbert, who once played the president on “24” and is the voice of Allstate Insurance.

“The World According to Dick Cheney” has interesting insights and revealing moments, but for critics who long to confront Mr. Cheney it may prove dissatisfying, because it allows him to make astonishing assertions without direct contradiction or follow-up questions.

Most notably, Mr. Cheney defends his position on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the Iraq war and the use of waterboarding with his usual aplomb and deft obfuscation. Other key players, including George W. Bush, have acknowledged mistakes and expressed dismay over decisions that proved misguided. Mr. Cheney says he did nothing wrong and has no regrets.

He justifies all his actions by saying that they prevented another terrorist attack on American soil, without ever explaining how the Iraq war, authorized on the basis of faulty intelligence, fits into that assertion. Biographers give a different version of events, but no one calls his bluff to his face.

Then again, Mr. Cheney’s complacency speaks for itself. “I did what I did, it’s all on the public record, and, um, I feel very good about it,” he says at the end. “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”

Considerable footage and commentary are spent on his boyhood and early days as a Washington insider, without offering insights into his character. There is less time left for examining his doings after Sept. 11. Mr. Cutler, who is not seen on camera, is heard only occasionally, softly lobbing polite questions at Mr. Cheney. (When he asks him what he makes of critics who say he wanted to go to war, Mr. Cheney shuts him down with dry sarcasm. “Wanted? Why, ’cause we like war?”)

Mr. Cheney, who uses the pronoun “I” so assertively that when he says “we,” it sounds like the royal first-person pronoun, doesn’t play down his authority in the Bush White House. But others in the film make the case that Mr. Cheney manipulated Mr. Bush and at times even deceived him in ways that endangered his presidency.

One incident is almost chilling. Barton Gellman, a journalist and the author of a Cheney biography, recounts how in 2004 Mr. Cheney fought Justice Department lawyers who had determined that the top-secret, warrantless surveillance program that he had pushed for was illegal. Mr. Cheney was so insistent on keeping the wiretaps going that he kept Mr. Bush, then in his re-election campaign, out of the loop until the 11th hour, when two dozen Justice Department lawyers and the F.B.I. director threatened to resign.

Alerted at the last minute about the imminent showdown, Mr. Bush intervened and overruled Mr. Cheney. In his biography, “Decision Point,” Mr. Bush said he felt “blindsided” and likened the consequences to the Saturday Night Massacre debacle during Watergate.

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