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Cheney film hits nerve at Sundance

New documentary based on interviews

Some audience members were upset by The World According to Dick Cheney. That much was clear from the questioning the filmmakers faced after the world premiere at Sundance. Where was the proof that Cheney started the Iraq War to funnel profits back to Haliburton? What about Cheney’s role in authorizing the torture at Abu Ghraib, or the secret plans for war on Iran?

The World According to Dick Cheney will not satisfy those who regard Cheney as a figure roughly analogous to Joseph Stalin in his methods and legacy. Some may ask whether producer R.J. Cutler had a duty to make a documentary that inspires greater rage. The film centers on four days of interviews with Cheney himself, recalling Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (an interview with Robert McNamara). And by sticking closely to the facts, the film is more damning than any screed would be.

The first part, covering Cheney’s rise to power, is a dream for any would-be Washington power obsessive. Cheney had an inauspicious start to his career: He was a college dropout who was jailed for repeated drunken-driving. But it all turns around when, as a graduate student, he spends a year as a congressional fellow. Cheney manages to leverage his way into Donald Rumsfeld’s office in the White House, and, by age 34, rises to become chief of staff for President Ford. He works with Rumsfeld to engineer a coup of sorts – the “Halloween Massacre” – that purges the moderates from the Ford administration.

Most of the film, though, centers on the first term of the George W. Bush administration, the zenith of Cheney’s powers. Bush was insecure and overly trusting of his advisers, and Cheney ran circles around him. Late in 2000, Bush let his vice president choose almost the entire administration, ensuring a power structure more personally loyal to Cheney than to the president. After the 9/11 attacks, Cheney for a while actually seems to run the country, using his favorite technique: controlling what information the president is exposed to.

Cheney will ultimately be judged by the one decision he personally did the most to engineer: the invasion of Iraq, which toppled Saddam Hussein but also cost more than $1 trillion and the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. The film tells us what we already knew: that Cheney was absolutely convinced that Saddam had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. What the interview reveals is that Cheney still believes that Saddam had WMDs or was about to get them.

Today’s Congress, with its endless fights between the two parties, can make one dream of a different kind of politician: someone insensitive to short-term electoral concerns, who simply does what he thinks best for the nation. It is important to understand that Dick Cheney is one of the clearest examples of what that looks like in practice.

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