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By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: The World According To Dick Cheney, After Tiller

The first film I saw at Sundance 2013 was a bitter note, a reckless, infuriating piece of work for Showtime, The World According to Dick Cheney, a credulous, shallow, near-hagiography of the former vice president’s decades-long political scheming and proud lying. Built around four days of interviews, Cheney, in this incarnation—the filmmakers say they have the DVD extras to enhance the historical record where the film does not—is told from his perspective. The first hour, narrated by Dennis Haysbert (“24″) with all the gravitas of a quick day session, suggests that Cheney’s entire life was willed, as if a fated life narrative were unfolding before us. Cheney is decisive. Cheney rises above being thrown out of Yale and multiple drunk-driving arrests to become Cheney. Cheney was fated to be Cheney. That’s the level of background provided.

The film is fixed on the force of his crude personality and drive to power. The cut-rate melodramatic score is most pronounced during Cheney’s braggadocio about 9/11, and accompanied by a grab bag of archival footage, endorses his perspective, whether intentionally or not. The very fabric of the filmmaking seems to underline and endorse his every pronunciamento. Turning to wars, the film quickly becomes “Zero Dick Thirty.” Decisiveness! Forget the law! Forget treaties! Cheney is also reprehensible in its innocuousness: reverence toward an elected official turns into something beneath the sorry level of contemporary network news-gathering. While there are terse sound bites from journalists (all of whom are lit to look as geeky as possible), the key interview, done by the filmmakers, is on the level of David Gregory or Oprah, with as many follow-up questions as on a Sunday morning conventional wisdom show. (One? Two? I don’t think it goes higher than that.) It’s even weaker tea than when network interlocutors steep in the proximity of power or vast wealth. (Coincidentally, the film premiered at the same time Oprah’s suddenly visible cable channel offered Lance Armstrong and Oprah a chance to cry a river over the phony athlete’s lost endorsement tens of millions.) No mention of Cheney’s military record, no mention of the Halliburton financial deal that enriched him even into the vice-presidential mansion. All you’re left with is unique access. Four hours of my time to broker platitudes about a lifetime of being closed-off and controlling: what will you do for me, Showtime? We see the answer Cheney got to that question. His bright-eyed grimace when he offers smug, superior, dismissive, clunkily-formed, unfunny one-liners, is the failed film’s high point. Or, perhaps, its only point. Did I mention that Dick Cheney single-handedly saved America and we ought to be grateful for all his fateful acts? History awaits a skeptical portrait.

The next film, a documentary, made for a schizophrenic double feature: the tender, melancholy yet emphatic observational doc, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller, which follows the work done by the last four doctors who perform third-trimester abortions in this country, all who knew or worked with murdered doctor George Tiller, who was gunned down in a Kansas church in 2009. In its quiet way, it’s an advocacy doc to uphold the law of the land: despite a crazy quilt of state regulations, what they do is legal under federal law. The providers discuss the implications of the acts they perform and the reasons several have continued far past retirement age in their calling. (It’s bracing to hear the word “terrorist” correctly applied to acts of intimidation that include murder and firebombing.)  The position of the filmmakers is never in doubt, but in detailing the daily choices, acts, and emotions, Shane and Wilson have made an assured, incisive humanistic nonfiction film to admire.

One Response to “Sundance Review: The World According To Dick Cheney, After Tiller”

  1. Sam E. says:

    I don’t find a film supports Dick Cheney’s worldview to be a valid artistic criticism. Whatever, you think of him the man does have a life story well worthy of a documentary and this review does very little to convey whether or not the documentary was worthy of that story. Also, I have to seriously wonder how often you’ve seen Mr. Gregory or if you just glibly assume that network news shows cater to the lowest common denominator.

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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution