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

by John Anderson
March 26, 2014 11:53 AM
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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.”


  • george | April 23, 2014 10:09 AMReply

    My view:
    Rummy is devious dishonest and unable to face what is was involved in. A master of sophistry.

    Morris reminds me of someone who has just set a bear trap and is now hiding in the woods to see what happens. Way to many tricks (music, superimposed graphics) to dramatize and manipulate the viewers emotions.

    Still worth seeing to fill in the gaps in my historical knowledge.

  • rumsfeldisapsychopath | April 7, 2014 3:49 PMReply

    rumsfeld is a psychopath. google "by, for and of psykopaths".

  • dale | December 16, 2013 8:52 PMReply

    I'm pretty sure Sec Rumsfeld understands irony. I'm equally sure that the word doesn't mean what progressives think it means.

  • Patrick | November 21, 2013 11:23 AMReply

    Having met Mr. Morris briefly he is a prickly sort but not excessively so. He has strong opinions, a healthy ego and he is keenly aware of criticism. But having seen this film he does what a documentarian does, or should do, which is accurately depict the subject, filling in documentable details that may be forgotten or conviently avoided by others involved.

    Rumsfeld has a particular ability to find the maximum amount of flexiblity and obfuscation in any statement he makes redefining things as he sees fit, something Morris details in last exchange with Rumsfeld in the film in which the term used for the title, "unknown known" is given a revised definition. The fact that Rumsfeld has no real contrition for his actions may be frustrating for viewers hoping to see more, but if it's not there in the subject that in itself is very informative as to just how effed up he was/is. And to his credit, Morris shows that characteristic of Rumsfeld in spades.

    The fact that Rumsfeld doesn't come to grip with just how disasterous his leadership was doesn't mean that history won't. Morris' film goes a long way to framing history's judgement.

  • Hey Harry | November 19, 2013 10:55 PMReply

    Quote "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.’”


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