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‘The Unknown Known’ Review and Q & A: Errol Morris vs. Donald Rumsfeld

'The Unknown Known' Review and Q & A: Errol Morris vs. Donald Rumsfeld

It started in Telluride, the word that somehow Errol Morris didn’t “nail” Donald Rumsfeld in his mano a mano confrontation in “The Unknown Known” (Participant, Radius TWC). While I am fascinated by this portrait of a man who was close to the seat of power in this country for decades, from the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations through George W. Bush and the aftermath of 9/11–the biggest reveal is that he wished that his boss had allowed him to tender his resignation after the damning Abu Graib pictures were revealed–Morris lets Rumsfeld off easy.

I’m not sure that he realizes how much his tried-and-true interratron filmmaking method lets him down in this particular case, unlike his Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” or his torture doc “Standard Operating Procedure.” Rumsfeld is a particularly oily politician with a real gift of gab and prevarication. And so Morris focuses on his word skills, his blizzard of memos, his sneaky generalizations. And the slippery bastard wins the day.

“The Unknown Known” plays at the upcoming DOC NYC, running November 14 through 21.

In the Q & A from a Toronto Film Festival screening, Thom Powers asks him about how words and their meaning play an important role in the film.

Errol Morris: “It’s a complicated question because the use of language in this movie is complex. Language is a way of conveying information and language is a way of obscuring information. There was a screening of a rough cut of this film at MIT. I hadn’t quite finished the movie. And a mathematician came up and said, ‘Are you aware that a lot of what he says are contradictions? In logic the form of P and not P?’

I said, ‘Yes I was aware of this.’

‘Are you aware that from a contradiction you can prove anything?’

I said, ‘Yes, I was aware of that.’ The movie actually starts more or less with a contradiction, Rumsfeld saying that preparing for war can become a cause of war and not preparing for war can be a cause of war. I point out to him: ‘Wait a second from that kind of argument you can justify anything,’ and indeed you can. Another one of my favorites: ‘The absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence.’ Sounds good on the face of it but think about it a wee little bit and it becomes disturbing.

We had an exchange of emails. I was the recipient of many “snowflakes” from Donald Rumsfeld. I offered to show him rough cuts of the film. He’s been sent four different rough cuts. He sent me back elaborate notes.

In one note he wrote, ‘I should have written that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence or evidence of presence.’ Indeed he should have written that and it isn’t what he wrote. The memo was sent to guess who? The President of the United States at a time when they were deciding whether or not to invade Iraq. Because why? Saddam Hussein had instruments of mass destruction. 

‘What evidence do you have?’

‘Maybe we have evidence, maybe we don’t.’

After all, the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. In a less charitable mode I pointed out that I could tell you there are flying monkeys armed what thermonuclear weapons flying this way. On what evidence? I would say the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. What a nightmare!”

Thom Powers: How do you prepare for interviews, you don’t believe in going in armed with lots of questions?

“The approach is very simple. I really prepare. It often felt like cramming for an exam. Not having a list of questions doesn’t mean you don’t prepare, you do prepare, you don’t know where exactly the evidence is going to lead. My favorite example of this is my first interview with Robert McNamara 10 years ago. I really prepared, read all the books, and then some. McNamara arrived at the studio on the Tuesday knowing that the previous weekend had run a NYT Magazine interview with Bob Kerry, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam, who was recently accused of being a war criminal. He had seen and went on to say that properly speaking Bob Kerry was not a war criminal; the war criminal was himself.

That started the interview. But there was no way to prepare for something like that. It somehow happened. Many of what I consider to be the more memorable moments in the interview with Rumsfeld I never prepared for. I was prepared when he went on and on about the migration of techniques at Guantanamo to Afghanistan and Iraq. He cites all the reports, said there was no such thing. I read to him from The Schlesinger Report, one of the oddest moments for me in any film I’ve ever made, contradicting what he had just said and he looks at me and he says, ‘I would agree with that.’

There’s an essay I love that is close to my favorite, by Arnold Schopenhauer, bless his heart, called “The Art of Controversy.” Not enough people read this essay, I recommend it to everyone. There are two ways to win an argument: there’s logic and dialectic. Everyone knows you can never win argument with logic and you move on to dialectic where there are 30 ways to win an argument. One of the ways: if you’re arguing with someone and demolish what they had to say, then they look you in the eye and say, ‘I’m really glad you have come around to my way of thinking.’ 

Powers: Talk about your craft. 

I’m a filmmaker. What am I supposed to do? I’m making a movie. Music plays an important part of every film I’ve made, I feel very fortunate to have the score by Danny Elfman (audience applause) which is extraordinary. It’s very sad that you can’t be nominated at least so far for an Oscar for writing music for a documentary. I do believe an exception should be made in this instance.

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