Talking to Errol Morris About Donald Rumsfeld and The Unknown Known

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April 4 2014 4:34 PM

A Very Special Snowflake

Talking to Errol Morris about Donald Rumsfeld, who’s as maddeningly opaque as ever in The Unknown Known.

Director Errol Morris on September 9, 2013 in Toronto, Canada.
Director Errol Morris in 2013 in Toronto.

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images. Photo illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo.

After you've seen The Unknown Known, come back and listen to Dana Stevens and Slate political reporter David Weigel discuss Errol Morris' new documentary using the audio player below. You can also download it here.

Errol Morris’ new documentary The Unknown Known begins with an illustrative exchange between Morris and his subject, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who sat for 34 hours of interviews with the director. After listening to Rumsfeld read aloud from an icily condescending July 2001 memo to Condoleezza Rice (then the head of the National Security Council) about the looming threat of a nuclear Iraq, Morris asks, “Why the obsession with Iraq and Saddam?”

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Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

“You love that word obsession,” answers Rumsfeld, scrutinizing his questioner. “I can see the glow in your face when you say it.” (We, the audience, cannot, given that Rumsfeld is addressing his unseen interlocutor via Morris’ patented head-on interviewing machine, the Interrotron.)

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“Well, I’m an obsessive person!” half-laughs Morris in response.

“Are you? I’m not,” replies Rumsfeld, with the faint cat-that-ate-the-canary smile that seldom leaves his face throughout the movie. “I’m cool and measured.”

The cool cat may think he’s caught this particular canary, but the crafty bird keeps his distance and keeps the camera running, turning an initially frustrating conversation into a transfixing encounter with a man who, like Robert McNamara, served as one of the principal architects of a deeply unpopular and hugely destructive war—but who, unlike McNamara, doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought since. Rumsfeld—in case you’ve forgotten his prominent public persona as a star of Bush-era press conferences—tends to express himself in koan-like platitudes that hover in midair somewhere over the divide between timeless wisdom and obfuscatory bullshit. “I guess time will tell,” Rummy shrugs when Morris asks him whether, in the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, we should ever have invaded Iraq in the first place. After all, as he pointed out at one of those slippery press conferences, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—originally a quote from Carl Sagan about the possibility of life on other planets, which Rumsfeld appropriated in the bewilderingly dissimilar context of a justification for war.

One of the most cited of Rumsfeld’s Humpty Dumpty–esque non sequiturs was his division of all human knowledge into a fixed group of epistemological categories: the known known, the known unknown, the unknown unknown, and finally the elusive “unknown known,” which he defined in both a press conference and a departmental memo as “the things we think we know that it turns out we did not know.” (After reading the memo aloud, Rumsfeld clarifies that he meant to say just the opposite, sending the viewer’s mind on a brief loop-the-loop to figure out what that might mean.)

Whatever the formulation or its opposite meant in terms of the Bush Iraq policy—and even, especially, if it was just a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that meant nothing at all—it’s the perfect title for Morris’ project. This idiosyncratic and cerebral documentarian is, true to his word, obsessive, and one of his most persistent thematic preoccupations over the course of a 36-year-long career has been the elusiveness of knowledge. How do we know what we know? How can anything be known with certainty, given that human knowledge is at best partial and subject to distortion by faulty memory, self-deception, and our limited individual perspectives? This isn’t a philosophical abstraction for Morris, but a question that’s bound up in situations of real-life violence and injustice: the incarceration of an innocent man in The Thin Blue Line, prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib in Standard Operating Procedure, or the prosecution of unnecessary wars in The Fog of War and now The Unknown Known.

In a devastating moment near the end of The Fog of War, McNamara all but admits that some of his actions in Vietnam constituted war crimes. It’s a scene that could be construed as a kind of redemption, though Morris himself has rejected the notion that his job was to wring an apology out of McNamara: “I’m a Jew from Long Island, not a Catholic priest hearing confession.” At any rate, the then 85-year-old McNamara’s disclosure is a moment of introspection and self-scrutiny, a morally gratifying surprise twist that no doubt helped secure that film its Best Documentary Oscar for 2004.* The Unknown Known contains no such humanist satisfactions. Rumsfeld, now 81, remains chipper, opaque, and chillingly assured of the rightness of even the administration’s most lamentable choices.*

Morris structures this marathon stonewalling session around a formal device in which Rumsfeld reads aloud from among the 20,000 memos to colleagues and adversaries during his six years in the Bush administration. These were known as Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes,” an image that Morris literalizes throughout the film in a close-up of a snow globe whose tiny flakes drift down to the sound of Danny Elfman’s swirling score; meanwhile, dictionary definitions and phrases culled from those memos pile up in drifts of words on the screen.

It’s an open question why Rumsfeld agreed to participate in this film at all, given his disinclination for self-disclosure and his professed distaste for The Fog of War. (Morris sent him a copy of the documentary while persuading Rumsfeld to sit down for an interview; Rumsfeld told the filmmaker that McNamara had nothing to apologize for.) In the film’s closing moments, Morris asks why Rumsfeld is talking to him at all. “That’s a vicious question,” Rumsfeld replies—a curious choice of adjective, and one of the most overtly confrontational moments in this cat-and-mouse game between two very different men. But just as quickly, the ex-secretary recovers his composure and replies with the galling folksy opacity that was the hallmark of his time in office: “I’ll be darned if I know.”

I spoke to Morris on the phone this week from Los Angeles—he’s based in Boston but was in California shooting a series of commercials for Taco Bell. (It’s a very Errol Morrisian ad campaign for which he found people across the country with the given name Ronald McDonald and talked to them about their preference for Taco Bell products.) Not surprisingly for a man who makes his living talking to people, Morris was engaged, funny, and loquacious; the day after we spoke for more than an hour, he emailed asking if we could talk some more.

We began by discussing how he got started in commercials, of which he’s made hundreds during the past decade. Morris created a short film that ran at the beginning of the 2002 Oscar ceremony, in which he interviewed various public figures—Donald Trump, Iggy Pop, Mikhail Gorbachev—about their memories and associations with the movies. “Steve Jobs was in the audience and had me do a huge campaign for Apple entitled ‘Switch.’ From then on, I would get that kind of work constantly.” He later turned the outtakes from the Trump interview into a short film (in which, among other things, Trump explores his strong identification with Citizen Kane), which Morris called “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” (He’s now interested in doing something similar with the Taco Bell interview outtakes, if he can get permission from the company. “I have this dream that I’ll do another version: The guy who broke down crying because of his distress at that name,” Morris said.)

Morris is also beginning preproduction on his next film, Holland, Michigan, a thriller starring Naomi Watts, Bryan Cranston, and Edgar Ramirez, which will be, “for all intents and purposes,” his first fiction feature. (The Dark Wind, Morris’ 1991 adaptation of a Tony Hillerman novel, was never finished, reportedly because of creative differences with producer Robert Redford.) A script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Sodroski from the 2013 Hollywood “black list” of unproduced screenplays, Holland, Michigan is a contemporary dark comedy set in what Morris describes as “this strange city on the Western coast of Michigan.”

Perhaps because I was intimidated at the prospect of interviewing one of the world’s great living interviewers, I asked Morris about his technique when he first sits down with a subject. What takes any given interview from that initial awkward moment of sitting down with a stranger—in Morris’ case, not across from his subject but in a curtained booth, mediated by the live-feed screen of the Interrotron—to the revelatory places he’s able to take the conversation? His deceptively simple answer didn’t immediately equip me with Morris-level interviewing skills. “It comes down to: Are you interested in that person? Are they saying something you want to keep hearing about? It’s the enjoyment of talking to someone. … I’ve said that an interview is a human relationship in a laboratory setting.”

He prepares extensively in advance, learning everything he possibly can about his subject before sitting down in the curtained booth of the Interrotron, but he brings no prewritten questions or notes in with him. “I’ve been interviewed before by someone who sat there with the yellow pad, looking at the page, as if I was a supernumerary in the process. That’s a good way not to do an interview.”  

For The Unknown Known, Morris is at pains to distinguish his project in interviewing Rumsfeld from that of speaking with McNamara in The Fog of War. “People want this to be Fog of War II, and it’s never going to be. These two people are not alike,” he said. “People waiting for some David Frost or Mike Wallace moment miss the point. There is no redemption in any of this. A man I happen to like, a man I like less—both these men have done horrible things.” He mentioned a phrase from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that’s long obsessed him—“netting a fin in a waste of water”—and went on, “I think the movie does that.”

When I asked him whether it was frustrating to spend 34 hours in conversation with as notoriously tough a nut to crack as Rumsfeld, he replied, “I’m not interested in cracking the nut. I’m interested in exploring the nut, if that makes sense.” As it became clear over the course of their time together that the evasive Rumsfeld of the Bush-era press conferences was the same man sitting before him—a man he characterizes as “unapologetic, unremorseful, arrogant … a soldier in the army of himself”—Morris began to see the film as “a Borgesian metaphor: a guy who memorializes everything and remembers nothing.” The recurring image of the drifting “snowflake” memos came to stand for “the retreat into language, used not just to hide the truth from others, but from yourself—a strange retreat into the castle of language.”

In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld may wriggle his way out of confronting the war he helped start, but for the director, this only increases our responsibility to make sense of history ourselves. “It’s very important for us to remember all this and come to some kind of understanding of how it could have possibly happened,” Morris told me by way of a signoff. But he admits to being stumped by the mystery of his subject’s opaque surface. “You could say that the smile is a tell, but it’s not clear—a tell of what?” Morris asked. “I do not like medicalizing Rumsfeld. It lets everybody off the hook. But I did suggest one disorder that should be introduced into the DSM: irony deficit disorder. Rumsfeld has that. That does fascinate me.”

Correction, April 6, 2014: This article originally referred to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as a general. McNamara served in the Air Force and left active duty as a lieutenant colonel. It also stated that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was 82 at the time The Unknown Known was filmed. He will turn 82 in July. (Return.)

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