Odd Duck Doc Duo: Philip Roth, Dick Cheney

Philip Roth and Dick Cheney are unlikely bedfellows (just try expunging that image from your mind), but there are interesting parallels in both the style and substance of two documentaries devoted to them premiering this month: “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” which will make its debut at Film Forum in New York prior to a March 29 airing on PBS’ “American Masters;” and “The World According to Dick Cheney,” which Showtime will run March 15, following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

In both projects, the filmmakers are content, essentially, to let the subject hold forth, without any ostensible follow-up questions or challenges. There are third-party voices — in Roth’s case, almost all fellow writers speaking of him with great admiration; and in Cheney’s, either associates like Donald Rumsfeld, or journalists who have covered him. (The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward calls him “One of the monumental figures in American politics.”)

Both men, moreover, speak about not giving a damn what other people think of them.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults,” says Cheney, when asked by co-director R.J. Cutler to discuss his, sounding completely unrepentant, as usual, about anything that transpired during his tenure as Vice President.

“Shame isn’t for writers. You have to be shameless,” says Roth, described by Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections”) as “a person who really has decided he doesn’t care what the world thinks of him.”

Both documentaries are enlightening, at least in exposing the views of the featured personality — in Roth’s doc, sounding very much like his exit interview, for the day the author of “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” passes from the mortal coil. Moreover, even without follow-ups from Cutler, Cheney’s statements should provide plenty of fodder to his detractors, with the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd using the film to tee off on the guy she liked to call Vice, saying Cheney “certainly gives certainty a black eye.”

Still, I found myself wanting the interviewers to exhibit at least some interest in eliciting more from the subjects — either asking them to elaborate on certain points, or defend their position in regard to others. Besides, Cheney’s a tough guy who has no problem being combative, and Roth has had decades to contemplate the reaction to his writing. Why not press them to address their critics?

Admittedly, there is inherent value in hearing from such figures at such length, and plenty of time to sort out dissenting views and analysis. Even so, in both cases the filmmakers feel like they missed an opportunity — dealing with the guy forever linked with weapons of mass destruction, and another well versed in mass distraction.

Philip Roth: Unmasked

(Documentary; PBS, Fri. March 29, 9 p.m.)

Produced by Cineteve and American Masters for Thirteen. Executive producer, Susan Lacy; producers, Fabienne Servan Schreiber, Lucie Pastor; writer-directors, William Karel, Livia Manera; editor, Stephanie Mahet. 90 MIN.

The World According to Dick Cheney

(Documentary; Showtime, Fri. March 15, 9 p.m.)

Executive producer, R.J. Cutler; directors, Cutler, Greg Finton; writer-producers, Cutler, Francis Gasparini.

More TV

  • Love Island - Pictured: Kyra Green,

    TV Ratings: Is 'Love Island' Deserted?

    Two weeks have passed on “Love Island” and plenty of singles have coupled and uncoupled in their bid for love and a fat $100,000 pay check. However, there’s one couple that doesn’t seem to be hitting it off: CBS and “Love Island.” Ratings for the show have been far from paradisiacal, and with the network [...]

  • Jenny Wall Eryk Casemiro Nickelodeon

    Jenny Wall Named Nickelodeon CMO, Eryk Casemiro Named Senior VP of Nickelodeon Preschool

    Nickelodeon has hired two new executives, tapping Jenny Wall to become chief marketing officer and Eryk Casemiro to become senior vice president of Nickelodeon Preschool. Most recently CMO at Spotify-owned Gimlet Media, Wall will be responsible for all on- and off-air consumer marketing, brand creative and content launches across all of Nickelodeon’s platforms, including Nicktoons, [...]

  • Liz Garbus on Why We May

    Liz Garbus on Why The World May Never Know 'Who Killed Garrett Phillips'

    By the time Liz Garbus’s two-part documentary “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” debuts on HBO, there could be a new public lead in the case of the murdered titular 12-year-old. As least, that’s what many may hope after the new St. Lawrence County district attorney admitted a new tip earlier this spring. Garbus says she would [...]

  • Mike Fleiss

    'Bachelor' Producers in Wait-and-See Mode Amid Police Probe Into Fleiss Incident

    Those working on “The Bachelor” and its sister shows are in wait-and-see mode as a domestic incident involving creator Mike Fleiss continues to be investigated in Kauai, according to sources close to production. The results of the police investigation are still pending, after Fleiss’ wife, Laura Fleiss, had accused him of attacking her in their [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content