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"The Fog of War": Part II: Errol Morris Takes on Donald Rumsfeld

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by Anthony Kaufman
March 14, 2012 1:30 PM
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Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," about the infamous Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense, has a similar target up his sleeves: a new project on Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense who helped plan the Iraq War and sanctioned America's policies of torture, according to a story in today's Vulture.

According to the site, Morris did not confirm the documentary in progress, but "a well-placed source" reported that "Rumsfeld sat down with Morris last month for a wide-ranging series of interviews that cover the entire span of his 40 years in public life — as a naval aviator, four-term congressman, counselor to President Nixon, big pharma CEO, and, of course, as the second-longest-serving Secretary of Defense in history."

When I interviewed Morris in 2003 for "The Fog of War," his comments about McNamara were eerily similar to the kinds of things people were saying about Rumsfeld a few decades later:

"My favorite line in David Lynch's 'Elephant Man' is Anthony Hopkin's character at one point, says, "Am I good man or a bad man?"" Morris said. "And it's a central question in my life and it's a central question in McNamara's life. What have I done? What haven't I done? Am I a good man or a bad man? ... People have said to me that McNamara is vain, self-congratulatory, self-deceived. All of that may be true, and aren't we all? And does that mean that he is not also filled with genuine regret, even grief over the past. I like to set up a series of puzzles and questions, and if they're not answered completely, that's OK."

As the Vulture story points out, Morris's interest in Rumsfeld is not necessarily a political one, but also an epistemological one:

"Rumsfeld famously posited in 2002, when asked about Operation Iraqi Freedom, that “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.” This clearly intrigued Morris, who in a June 2010 opinion blog for the New York Times wrote, “I kept wondering if Rumsfeld’s real problem was with the unknown unknowns; or was it instead some variant of self-deception, thinking that you know something that you don’t know.  A problem of hubris, not epistemology.”

Meanwhile, on Morris's Twitter feed, the director has been actively engaged in the last couple days with some thoughts about Edgar Allan Poe, which if you think about it, could be resonant with his latest project: About one of his favorite Poe stories, "The Domain of Arnheim," he writes, "Yes, it's a "landscape" story, but it's also a story about how the search for perfection ends in Hell."

And regarding "The Murders of Rue Morgue," he tweets, "The clearer the "actus reus," the more elusive the "mens rea." (Yes, we know who did it? But do we know why?")"

Sounds a lot like much of Morris' work.

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