One of the most significant documentarians of his generation, Errol Morris has mostly spent the past 35 years making films about colourful eccentrics and outsiders. In 2003, however, the film-maker shifted his focus from pet cemetery owners and delusional beauty queens to former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War.
While his latest film The Unknown Known is another feature-length interview with a former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, it is markedly different in tone. Where McNamara earnestly contemplated his legacy, Rumsfeld obfuscates and eludes. Shortly before The Unknown Known’s release, Errol reflected on why audiences shouldn’t be expecting a sequel to his earlier film.
Donald Rumsfeld has done countless interviews. How did you try to get him to open up in a different way?
It was tricky. The first day I met him I was invited to join him while he answered questions from reporters on speakerphone about his new memoir. We’re sitting there and he’s asked these completely expected questions that he’s been asked hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of times. “Did you really think there were WMDs in Iraq?” “Did you think the number of troops used in the invasion were sufficient?” “Do you believe adequate preparations had been made for the aftermath of the war?” It had the quality of a vending machine. Same questions, same answers.
I wondered, what is this about? It represents some kind of strange exchange. It’s not necessarily investigative at all. It’s a version of theatre. I promised myself: I’m not going to do this. I don’t want to ask these same questions. I wanted to tease out something different, without really knowing what that was. And in interviewing him I found that often the most interesting stuff wasn’t the answers, it was these moments of silence, or his smile, or weird unexpected responses that aren’t really responses at all. The film pushes back on him endlessly, but it’s a different kind of movie. It’s a movie about the smile, the vanity, the self-satisfaction, the cluelessness, the retreat into empty rules and principles and slogans.
The act of interviewing a politician is often romanticised as being akin to sparring. In David Frost’s Richard Nixon interviews, for example, there’s the search for a “gotcha” moment. By contrast, what you do in your films is let people talk. What’s the value in that approach?
Well, take the adversarial, Frost/Nixon approach. It’s interesting that the movie they made is very different from the interviews themselves. They had to re-imagine the so-called “gotcha” moment to make it far more dramatic than it was. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain audience satisfaction in it, particularly if you’re dealing with a character that is really disliked by a lot of people. They want to see him punished. They want to see him held to account and his feet held to the fire. There’s an audience satisfaction in that kind of thing, particularly in a world where we realise these people may never be held accountable.
Somehow it goes back to this idea people have that I should be a version of the International Criminal Court, that I should be doing the job of trying Donald Rumsfeld. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me; it does. But I’m less interested in whether or not adequate preparations were made for the aftermath of the war. To me, the fact that we went to war in Iraq is a war crime. I’m interested in who this guy is, in how he sees himself. I’m interested in a different set of questions. The Fog of War was very much a movie about how McNamara sees himself in history, his feelings about what he did and why he did it. It’s very powerful because you feel that here’s a man tortured by history. And maybe for some people the idea was that The Unknown Known was going to be the same movie. Well, it’s not.
Rumsfeld isn’t the same person.
Exactly. He’s about as different from McNamara as anyone could be. I’ve made a lot of movies about self-deception in one form or another, and I’ve done nothing better than this one. It’s not the ICC, it’s not Frost/Nixon, nor was it ever intended to be. It’s an Errol Morris film about a guy who was extraordinarily ambitious, probably still is, who wanted to conquer the world, came damn close to doing it, and somehow as the world devolves into chaos around him, he enters a Looney Tunes universe of nomenclature and vocabulary and principles that are seemingly profound but when subject to any level of scrutiny are quickly exposed as gobbledygook.
Have you spoken to him since? It’s clear that he doesn’t have a desire for self-reflection. Do you think seeing the film made him register what he was doing?
I don’t think anything registers with him. I’ve not talked to him since he saw the final version, and not directly about this, but I’ve said all these things in interviews. I have a guilty conscience. I think somehow my job is at least to like the people I’m interviewing. Rumsfeld was charming, forthcoming, he gave me all these memos, he read them on camera, he came to Boston four times. Eleven long days of interviews.
But in the end… I’m appalled by all of it. I don’t know how better to describe it. I could pretend I’m not appalled, but I am. It just makes me sad to think that this is my government. Is that the best you can come up with, sir? It’s a level of reflection that’s non-reflection. The smile. The smile is really horrific. It’s like a tell in a poker game, where suddenly you realise that your opponent has given you a clue to what kind of hand they’re holding. I don’t know if I can adequately characterise it. Sometimes I call it the cat that swallowed the canary. That look of supreme self-satisfaction.
People want their notion of evil to be simple and easy to grasp. They want to see the cloven hoof, like, “What’s in the sleeve, Errol?”, and out pops the hoof and people gasp. Shakespeare knew this well. They want Lady Macbeth, they want Iago, they want Richard III. They want to see some undeniable evidence of the monstrous, the “Oh my God!” But here the monstrous is not the kind that you would like to see. It’s not the cloven hoof, it’s a smile. It’s his desire to simply deny the world around him, to prattle on, to enjoy the performance. Is he a performer? Yes. But in calling him a performer, you somehow think of an actor aware that he’s playing a role. He’s not playing a role, though. It’s not a performance by a person, the person is a performance. There’s nothing else there.
Do you think that’s why the film might be ultimately unsatisfying for a viewer looking for something confrontational? You don’t show underneath Rumsfeld, you show that there is no underneath.
Unsatisfying? Maybe. To me it’s the difference between being an artist and pandering. My job is to depict something of the reality in front of my camera as I see it. I don’t see myself as the arbiter of absolute truth any more than the next guy, but I do hope I’ve captured something.
There’s a moment when I read the Schlesinger Report to him, which contradicts what he had just said, and he looks at me like a frog on a lily pad and says, “I’d agree with that.” You’d agree with that? You just said the exact opposite! Now, I could have intervened, but to me there’s this moment where you just sit there, and you the audience, as well as me the interviewer, are left with this strange feeling of dislocation. Did I hear what I just heard? Did he say what I just heard him say? Is he aware that he’s simply contradicting himself? Is he aware of anything?
To me you could go either way. Is it a total failure as a film-maker, a failure to do justice to the error that he has made, the clear contradiction he’s just expressed? Or is it one of my finer moments, a way in to the reality of Donald Rumsfeld? Think of it not as a political documentary, but a fable of a man who gets lost inside of himself and lost inside of his own bullshit. In the end what’s revealed about Donald Rumsfeld is that he’s basically the equivalent of a Chinese fortune cookie.
I think the best moments come in weird places, like the part when he wins a semantic argument and says, “Chalk that one up.” To me, that’s film-making. It’s telling you so much. “Chalk that one up,” is him saying, “I got the better of you, buddy.” That’s how he sees it. But it’s not about getting the better of me. It’s about a very bad chapter in my country’s history. If you feel as I do that torture should not be part of the repertoire of a democracy, then this is a black stain. This was a horrible, horrible moment in American history. This is not a handball game, or table tennis. Often I’d feel that there was no moral dimension. So what do you do? Do you say, “Sir, where’s the moral dimension here?” How would he respond? “Ooh, you got me, there is none”? Or, do you let him prattle on and say, “Chalk this one up”? It’s all there. The movie is chock-a-block with revealing moments, contradictions, nonsense talk. It’s maybe the best I can do, and if people don’t like it… fuck ‘em.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty.