Errol Morris makes documentaries. He also plays the cello. So a recent conversation in Manhattan turned from film to a performance the previous night of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and its eloquent silences. “You could go as far as to say silence is what the Ninth is all about,” Morris said. And you might say the same about the director’s latest movie.
“The Unknown Known,” which arrives in theaters April 4, takes its title from a pseudo-cryptic quote by its subject, Donald Rumsfeld, but also describes the subject himself. The former secretary of defense, a chief architect of the inexplicable Iraq War, doesn’t provide explanations in Morris’ documentary portrait. He doesn’t offer apologies. He doesn’t grasp the need for either — or why anyone would question a man who seems incapable of questioning himself.
But it is that absence of introspection, or expression of same, that has left some viewers flummoxed, largely because they come to “The Unknown Known” expecting “The Fog of War.” That 2004 Oscar winner (subtitled “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”) seems enveloped in a fog of its own: McNamara was less remorseful and more slippery that a lot of people seem to recall, even if Rumsfeld takes both of those qualities to an Olympian level. But because “Unknown Known” is an interview-based film, Morris had to expect comparisons.
“Well, of course,” he said over lunch in Soho. “I’d even expected there’d be invidious comparisons, because why make comparisons if they’re not going to be invidious? I used to say that Genesis got it wrong and it needed to be amended, because it assumes that the Heavens are better than the Earth. So if God created the Heavens and the Earth knowing one was better that the other, he must have first created the invidious comparison. “So I would like Genesis to read ‘and God created the invidious comparison, and saw it was good. And on that basis did everything else.’”
The director said that he made a list of things he expected people to say about the film even before he finished it. Among them: that there was nothing new in the film, and that he didn’t nail Rumsfeld to the wall. He rejects both.
“It’s not underlined in red,” he said of the new material in the film. “Rumsfeld was shown four different cuts as we gradually put the film together over a year – the understanding as that he would have no final cut, no right of approval, but that I would be respectful. And he would send me notes. I would often refer to him as ‘Donald Rumsfeld, D Girl’ (development girl) they were snowflakes in essence,” Morris said, referring to the name given the blizzard of memoranda Rumsfeld generated during his time with the Bush administration, and portrayed visually in the film as flaky precipitation.
“He’d say ‘This is wrong, I like this, I don’t like that, you should change such and such’ and I would write notes back to him. An example: He felt I should make it clear that the policies of the Bush administration in 2001 were no different than the Clinton administration. And that’s OK — fair enough: You can request that I do that. But I’m not going to do that, because the policies were not the same.”
At the beginning of the film, there is a Rumsfeld memo talking about containing Sadaam Hussein, how the Iraqi dictator has “not been kept in the box” and poses a nuclear threat. “What does that memo tell us?” Morris said. “It tells us the Clinton policies of containment aren’t working and something is needed — yes, from Rumsfeld’s perspective, but it’s a powerful perspective, given that he’s secretary of defense. And in the next memo he’s talking about rearranging the map of the Mideast – ‘We have to hit a few more countries one or two, maybe more.’
“The memos themselves, which are the heart of the film, are his attempt to project an idea of himself, to others and also to himself,” Morris said. “Memo to self … I could go on and on and on but the only way people can say there is nothing new here is that they don’t know what’s transpired in the last 15 years.”
As pertains to his treatment of his subject — an easy man to despise given his blasé attitude about the death and destruction that lay in his wake — Morris is philosophical, and just a little defensive. “I don’t mean to sound defensive, though I am defensive,” he said. “But not all interviews work by virtue of being adversarial. And this film — self-serving for me to say so, but I’ll say it anyway — this film could never have worked as an adversarial film for many reasons.”
The chief reason, it seems, is Rumsfeld’s personality. “Many people have asked me to medicalize his, if you want to call it, ‘condition,’” Morris said. “Last night at the screening I started talking about the addition I wanted for the DSM5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition], which I call IDD –irony deficit disorder. The absolute inability to appreciate irony on any level. He exhibits endless examples of irony deficit disorder. He has, I would say, almost no awareness of himself. He’s aware he needs to justify himself, he needs to explain himself — in the words of Jefferson, he needs to give ‘an account of thy stewardship’ but beyond that is little or nothing.”
What he finds most interesting about his subject, Morris said, was that what you see is what you get. “It’s not as though there’s this hidden Rumsfeld I didn’t capture,” he added. “I think I captured the real Rumsfeld and it’s there on display. Sometimes the power of an interview — often in my view — comes from things that are not said.”
What has been said, he acknowledged, is that he was easy on Rummy, and gave him a pass. “Anne Thompson, by the way, falls into that category,” Morris said. “’Rumsfeld 1, Errol, 0.’ ‘Doesn’t land a glove on him.’ ‘Candy ass.’”
Anne Thompson wrote “candy ass”?
“No, I added that,” the director said, smiling. “I’m using it about myself so I’m entitled.”