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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

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.”

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


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Thompson on Hollywood

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.