Although he's been out of office for several years, Dick Cheney remains a polarizing figure in American public life. Some love him for his decisive role in a variety of jobs, including that of George W. Bush's vice president for eight years, while others see him as a Machiavellian incarnation of political evil.
The film probably won't change anyone's opinion of the man, but that doesn't make Cheney any less of a fascinating figure. Love him or hate him, no other vice president in American history was as "consequential" as Cheney himself correctly puts it. Where other modern-day vice presidents outlined certain policy areas to oversee, Cheney's vice presidency wasn't about policy agendas. Instead, he had "walk-in" rights to anything going on in the White House.
That was in part because after Bush was elected, Cheney essentially assembled the entire administration, based on his insider's knowledge of Washington. And by placing various people in key positions, he built his own power base, one that perhaps exceeded that of the president himself.
From the start of the film, we see Cheney in charge. When President Ronald Reagan was shot, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously declared himself in control at the White House and was pummeled for his presumptiveness. When 9/11 happened and Bush was off in Florida reading to a classroom of children, Cheney knew better than to make any such declarations. He wasted no time making decisions without waiting for Bush to get back to Washington. Observers comment about how cool and calm he was in the midst of that singular terrorist attack. But in his view, there is no room for emotion in dealing with a crisis.
The film traces Cheney's life from his Wyoming boyhood, through flunking out of Yale, through a talking-to from his future wife, Lynn, which, although Cheney won't say what she told him, marked a turning point in his life in 1963: Twelve years later, he was the White House chief of staff.
By the mid-'90s after roles in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and a notable midlife career in Congress, Cheney had determined the next logical step was to run for president. But after lackluster polling results, he moved in another direction and became CEO of Halliburton for five years.
When Bush put him in charge of finding a running mate, Cheney created an exhaustive vetting system requiring complete medical records and financial records going back a decade. Candidate after candidate was deemed not quite right for the job.
Bush kept asking him to take the job himself, but, as Barton Gellman ("Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency") puts it, "the more he ran away, the more Bush pursued him."
Gellman says that, traditionally, "Vice presidents don't run things," but Cheney did through much of Bush's eight years in the White House. Some say he virtually ran the country as the eminence grise behind the president.
The attack on the World Trade center represents "the hinge of history" for Cheney, according to journalist Bob Woodward. He engineered the imprisonment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; supported enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding; and continues to maintain that it was the right call; and came up with the 1 percent doctrine by which the U.S. would take action if there was even a 1 percent chance that a potential terrorist act was in the works.
Cheney opposed Bush seeking congressional approval to wage war against Saddam Hussein, but Bush went ahead anyway. The congressional resolution was in doubt because House Majority Leader Dick Armey opposed it until Cheney pulled him over to the administration's side by feeding him inaccurate information about Iraq's weaponry and readiness. Cheney sticks by his belief that the Iraq War was justifiable.
Cheney and Bush eventually fell out so badly that the president instructed his aides not to put through any calls from his vice president. The failure of the administration's Iraq policies could not go ignored, and Bush canned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney's longtime ally and mentor. Cheney is shown at Rumsfeld's retirement ceremony, praising him as the best boss he's ever had. His current boss, the 43rd president of the United States, is sitting behind him, looking uncomfortable.
Cheney was increasingly isolated during the final phase of the Bush presidency, in part because some of his old allies were gone. Instead, the president came to rely more on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, says Cheney even today, was "on the wrong side of those issues." When a nuclear reactor was discovered in Syria, Cheney wanted to bomb it, while Rice successfully made her case to Bush to take a diplomatic approach.
The strength of the documentary is that although it is grounded in an extensive interview with its subject, it is not hagiography. Writers like Woodward and Gellman weigh in with considered and not always flattering opinions about Cheney. That said, noticeable by their absence as interview subjects in the film are Rice and, in particular, Bush. Rice would have offered a different point of view, of course, on foreign policy. But without Bush, we can only guess how the relationship between Bush and Cheney evolved over the years.
Author Ron Suskind ("The One Percent Doctrine") says Bush didn't realize "how thoroughly overmatched he was" by his vice president at first, but did see the light eventually.
Was he aware of the oft-voiced claim that Cheney was pulling his strings? Did that eventually contribute to their falling out?
The film makes Bush out to be a fool, which may be one reason he wouldn't sit down for an interview. At one point, we hear Cheney saying that there is clear evidence that Iraq has the "capability and intent" of developing nuclear arms. A minute later, Bush says the same thing in a press conference - the suggestion being that Cheney said it first, and Bush parroted it as instructed.
At the start of the film, we see Cheney clearly in charge when 9/11 occurs. Next sequence: Bush looking dumbfounded while holding "The Pet Goat" with Florida second-graders sitting at his feet.
The placement of the two film clips is more than coincidental.
Cheney says that in making political decisions, one should always consider the long term. How will history and the long term judge Cheney and his role in the Bush administration? Will history ever say about Cheney, as Brutus does about Caesar, "ambition's debt is paid"?
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic.