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Errol Morris Stands Up for Unapologetic Donald Rumsfeld Doc 'The Unknown Known'

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood March 26, 2014 at 11:53AM

Errol Morris talks back on his new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld "The Unknown Known," which arrives in theaters April 4.
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Unknown Known
Nubar Alexianan

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.

Unknown Known

“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.”

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Errol Morris, Documentary, Documentaries, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, Oscars


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.