Who’s telling this story?

October 23, 2013

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We are in the midst of a bumper crop of bio-docs: documentaries focused on single figures who have wound up on the wrong side of history and who seemingly want the chance to get their side of the story on the record.

Obviously, there will be those who disagree with my assessment of the subjects of “The World According to Dick Cheney,” R.J. Cutler’s portrait of the former vice president which played at Sundance at the beginning of the year before it aired on Showtime.

The same folks will no doubt question my inclusion of Donald Rumsfeld on that list (he’s the subject of Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known,” which screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September and which will be released in December). Or Henry Paulson, subject of Joe Berlinger’s “Hank: 5 Years from the Brink,” which aired on Netflix in September. Fewer may have that problem with “The Armstrong Lie,” Alex Gibney’s portrait of Lance Armstrong, which played Toronto and opens in November.

The filmmakers themselves (with the possible exception of Gibney) would no doubt tell you that they don’t judge their subjects – but they wouldn’t have made their films if Cheney and Rumsfeld (and Paulson, for that matter) weren’t obviously polarizing public figures. Drama comes from conflict and the divisiveness over key figures in the administration of George W. Bush continues to this day.

So why would figures of such controversy, known for their antipathy toward the press and their controlling natures, sit down in front of the cameras of filmmakers known for, shall we say, provocative and insightful work?

The answer is obvious: So they can have a forum to tell their side of the story, no matter how distorted and self-serving their version may be. It is, after all, almost 40 years since Richard Nixon faced off with David Frost, a watershed moment that backfired on that disgraced president’s attempt to burnish his tarnished legacy.

No doubt these particular newsmakers felt they could control the conversation with the filmmaker. If things weren’t going their way, they could always take a page from the handbook of the late Robert McNamara, who sat for Morris in the prescient “Fog of War,” the Oscar-winning doc which predicted the failure of the Iraq war on the eve of that conflict. McNamara said that, when he was asked a question he didn’t like, he simply answered the question he wished he’d been asked instead.

So why would intelligent filmmakers give people like this a forum, simply to spout the same old lies and distortions?

I will admit that I went into the films about both Cheney and Rumsfeld knowing a lot about them. I was well-versed in their talking points and so was unsurprised when they didn’t stray from the party line. What was in it for them to do otherwise?

Indeed, I ran into critics at both festivals who said, “Why would I want to see those films? I already know what they’re going to say.”

Which makes you wonder about smart guys like Cutler and Morris. Morris has a history of extracting unexpected stuff out of people. He got McNamara to all but burst into tears in recalling the mistakes that were made in Vietnam; but then McNamara had already confessed to his own tortured hindsight in his memoir. More important, McNamara was a businessman, not a politician – and someone with a conscience who could, from the distance of 30-plus years, admit his mistakes.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, by contrast, are still fighting to write their own history. They know their history is too fresh, too malleable, still capable of being influenced by journalists, historians and others in the fact-based world.

They are convinced that, if they simply keep repeating the same story over and over – on film and in books – it will somehow become true. So far, it seems to be working. They long ago declared victory; if they say it often enough, that will become the record. Why would they admit that it was actually a defeat at this point?

No doubt, Morris – and Cutler – assumed that, given enough time with their subject in front of a camera, they could wear them down with probing questions that caused them to rethink their recent history. They may have assumed that, given the right circumstances, they could break through the veneer to get at the real man. Both, it turns out, were wrong.

While the films about Rumsfeld and Cheney are fascinating for their portrait of arrogance and certitude, the Cheney doc doesn’t humanize him. Nor does it disguise his insistence on controlling the narrative. He has no doubts – and Cutler does nothing to either cast doubt on his story or his certainty.

Rumsfeld also brings a chilly charm to film: an unflappable cheerfulness and “Good golly!” homespun quality, even when being confronted with evidence that he’s not telling the truth. To Morris’ credit, he contrasts Rumsfeld’s responses in this film with actual footage of Rumsfeld saying something at, for example, a press conference in 2003 that he’s just told Morris he never said.

“The Armstrong Lie,” by contrast, offers an angry filmmaker who spent a year being duped by the disgraced athlete in 2009, during the comeback that led to Armstrong’s eventual downfall. When Armstrong finally admitted the truth publicly, Gibney apparently demanded that Armstrong sit down and explain himself to Gibney – after Armstrong did the interview with Oprah Winfrey where he admitted that he had lied by using performance-enhancing drugs.

Even then, Armstrong tries to sand the edges of his image with Gibney – but Gibney refuses to let him off the hook, bringing in witnesses to his misdeeds and recounting the various steps along Armstrong’s fall from grace. This is a portrait of a liar; it’s right in the title.

There may be value in documenting the testimony of former power players who seek to shape the way history will view them, but probably not what Cutler and Morris think. It’s doubtful that Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld would sit down with someone like Alex Gibney, anymore than they’d sit down with Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or anyone else who has an actual political point of view.

Not that Morris and Cutler don’t. But the message they broadcast with these films may not be the one they think.

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