There’s a documentary playing at Sundance that has me a little confused, in a good way: The World According to Dick Cheney, directed by R.J. Cutler. Considering Cutler was a producer on The War Room, a very empathetic portrayal of Bill Clinton’s campaign to be president, and, frankly, the doc world’s tendency toward left-leaning politics, I assumed that the film would be an incisive attack on the man who many consider to be the puppet master behind President George W. Bush. Cheney is the most powerful Vice President ever, the guy who helped mastermind our disastrous response to 9/11, is implicated in the lies that dragged us through years of costly war in Iraq, and has ties to all sorts of evil-doers in the world (Enron, etc.).

OK, so my cards are on the table, but it’s not such a stretch to assume that Cutler had sharpened his knives a bit. But when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, he took a far more measured approach.

“I think democracy needs that sort of conviction,” Cutler told me, referring to the mindset of both Cheney and the subjects of The War Room. “We give Vice President Cheney full voice. It’s an active dialogue. Our goal is to understand the man and understand what he did.”

Cutler sat down with Cheney for a series of four interviews, which, again, surprised me: Wouldn’t Cheney have been wary about how Cutler would portray him? Cutler says that there were no established “parameters” to his interviews and that he was free to ask whatever he wanted.

Perhaps Cheney partly let his guard down because he knew Cutler was making the film for a mainstream outlet, Showtime, as part of the cable channel’s new doc series, which seeks to portray significant, recognizable personalities who’ve had deep impact on the culture. Or, maybe Cheney just put his faith in Cutler, who laid out to me how he wanted to trace Cheney’s 40-year career, from his childhood in Wyoming, through his work in the Nixon administration and his being the youngest chief of staff in history for Gerald Ford.

I’m certainly curious. (Also, Cutler mentioned that he interviewed Donald Rumsfeld, who says things about Cheney that are “breaking news,” according to Cutler.) Frankly, I’d be happy with a hatchet job, but if Cutler wants to bring more intellect and nuance to the discussion, that’s the higher road. After 1996’s Perfect Candidate(POV 1997) – which Cutler directed with David Van Taylor about Oliver North’s unsuccessful Senate campaign – it’s the third installment in Cutler’s American politics trilogy, and it could firmly position him as one of our great documentary chroniclers of the American political landscape.

The World According to Dick Cheney plays at Sundance, starting January 18, 2013 and will debut on Showtime March 15, 2013.

 

*A Perfect Candidate is streaming on POV until May 2, 2013.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kind Singles, including the bestselling Kind Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen