The VICE Channels

    Errol Morris on 'The Unknown Known' and Donald Rumsfeld's Snowflakes

    Written by

    Whitney Mallett

    Errol Morris's newest documentary, The Unknown Known, is a 96-minute interview with Machiavellian mouthpiece Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense who served both under Ford and, most recently, George W. Bush. The film's title comes from Rumsfeld's infamous and obscure gibberish about knowns and unknowns from a speech he gave to the press in 2002 regarding evidence of weapons of mass destruction, prior to the invasion of Iraq.

    Superficially, the film invites comparison to the 2003 The Fog of War, Morris's feature on another former secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. McNamara was largely responsible for Vietnam, Rumsfeld for Iraq. But while the doc on McNamara is a tale of redemption, Rumsfeld never asks for our forgiveness and Morris doesn't seem interested in trying to extract it. Instead, he is fascinated by the man's ability to spew contradictions and use language to bewitch and befuddle, especially in the thousands of internal memos he refers to as snowflakes.

    Morris's signature deer-in-headlights interviewing style lends drama to the first-person interviews that make up the film. As per usual, he uses his Interrotron, a teleprompter-like device that projects an image of his own face in front of the camera lens, allowing the interviewee to stare directly into the camera as the subject answers Morris's questions. That and Morris's wit make for an entertaining film featuring just one talking head.

    The Unknown Known premiered in Venice last week, and it played this week in North America for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival. In Toronto, I talked to Errol about all the stupid things people are saying about his new film.

    So, everyone is comparing it to The Fog of War.

    I compare it to TabloidTabloid 2 not Fog of War 2.

    Do you think it is unfair for people to compare it to The Fog of War and they are becoming disappointed because Rumsfeld doesn't crack the way McNamara did?

    I don't think it's unfair, I just think it's just really stupid. 

    So why is it more like Tabloid?

    Well, I have an affection for certain kinds of clueless characters. In some sense, I find Joyce McKinney [from Tabloid] clueless and in some sense I find Donald Rumsfeld clueless…maybe. I can't be sure. There are certain responses he has to questions that surprise me with their amazing lack of depth, not the converse. 

    For example, when I ask him what he learned from the American debacle in Vietnam, the answer is, some things work out and some things don't. If that's a lesson, then it's a lesson.

    Do you think he is also clueless in that he thinks he is tricking us, but really we can see right through him? He thinks he is smarter than he is?

    I don't really know. Clearly he's smart enough. Clueless means something different. When you say he's hiding something, I was never sure that he was hiding anything. There are things he doesn't like to talk about. He's not particularly forthcoming about his relationship with Richard Cheney. And you know there has to be more there, there just has to be. 

    There have been these snowflakes from Donald Rumsfeld. There have been specific complaints that I find very, very interesting.

    Do you have any idea why he doesn't seem to like the question of why he did the film?

    I am not sure he doesn't like that question. But I am pretty clear there are things in the film he wishes were not in the film, that he wishes were changed in some way. We have memos back and forth. He has seen at least three cuts. He has been sent the fourth and the final version of the film, which he has not yet commented on. But there have been these snowflakes from Donald Rumsfeld. There have been specific complaints that I find very, very interesting.

    One of the first memos talks about Saddam crawling a good way out of the box. [Quotes Rumsfeld from the film] "And at some time, in the future we are going to have to confront a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons." Then I have a nice graphic of a nuclear weapon just to remind people what he is talking about. Nuclear weapon: this is a nuclear weapon, for your consideration.

    He wrote to me that I should clarify this and say that the policies, the early policies of the Bush administration, were just a continuation of Clinton's policies. I wrote back that I really couldn't do that because I just simply did not believe it was true. For example, when he says that Saddam has crawled a good way out of the box, he is telling you that the policy of containment, which was explicitly the policy of the preceding administration, has failed. And something else is needed. In his own memo.  

    I wrote down six or seven remarks that I expected to hear from reviewers that were going to really, really annoy me.

    Have you heard them all yet?

    I actually have. I've heard them all and I've heard more.

    Well let me guess, the McNamara comparison?

    It's both the McNamara comparison and the McNamara invidious comparison. There's people saying it's Fog of War 2 and then there's the "It's not as good, it's the inferior sequel."

    One complaint is the really perceptive observation that Rumsfeld is not McNamara, something that I have noticed during the making of the film. He's completely different. 

    What are the other things you expected to hear that you did?

    Not tough enough. Wimpy interviewer. No guts. Just rolled over for Rumsfeld.

    Nothing new here. Why, there is nothing new here!

    I heard one that I really, really "loved." I supposed I should do air quotes but I won't. (Am I nuts this morning? I can't tell.) One complaint was, "You waited a respectful amount of time before interviewing McNamara. McNamara left office in '67 and you didn't interview until 30 years after the fact whereas with Rumsfeld you did not wait a decent interval. You interviewed him a few years after his departure from the Pentagon."

    Do you think it would be different had you waited?

    How the hell would I know? It's one of those fucked-up counterfactuals. How would I know? What I do know is that when I interviewed McNamara he was 86 years old and in failing health. Had I not interviewed him when I did, that film would never have happened. If I had waited a year, that film would never have happened.

    I would think when you start unleashing the power of the largest military apparatus in the history of the world, you would think it might have some repercussions. 

    So there are windows of opportunity. You make use of them while they are there. With Rumsfeld, perhaps I could wait 30 years, but given the fact he was already 79, 80 years old when I interviewed him, waiting another 25 year might be ill-advised for many reasons. You can even come up with some of them yourself—Am I being so snide this morning?

    You're being funny. So, do you think Rumsfeld understands the consequences of his actions?

    I would think when you start unleashing the power of the largest military apparatus in the history of the world, you would think it might have some repercussions. So yes I do. 

    To me he seems like he is alienated from the consequences.

    Alienated is an odd word, maybe. I would put it differently. I keep coming up with these different metaphors. I don't really like any of them. I suppose you make a movie so you don't have to come up with metaphors, but you have to come up with metaphors anyway after the fact. Maybe this is a different way of saying what you just said. Tell me if I have missed the point altogether.

    [Errol is served a pot of hot water and a mysterious cardboard pyramid on a miniature plate.]

    What is in here? What is this?

    I think it's the tea bag. 

    The tea bag is in here? And how do I extract it? I rip it open?

    And then that little leaf is the handle for you. So cute.

    Very sophisticated. And without help, I'd have never been able to do it myself.

    [Tea successfully brewed, we return to the topic of Rumsfeld.]

    There's a kind of a disjunction between him and reality. So maybe that is saying the same thing. The war is going south. It's hard to find people really on the left or on the right that would say it's a successful war effort. They've stopped writing about it. But they are still killing people. 

    By saying he is out of touch with reality, are you saying he is delusional?

    Delusional seems like a medical term. I think he engages in a lot of wishful thinking. Also over the years, many, many, many people have said to me how brilliant this stuff is. Rumsfeld as epistemologist. Rumsfeld as philosopher. Rumsfeld as metaphysician. The unknown known. I find the stuff to be really really, really interesting. But I find it interesting because of how much it obscures, not so much for what it illuminates. 

    Motherboard hung out with Morris and our own Interrocam in 2011.

    What did Rumsfeld make of the Interrotron?

    He had no problem with it. Occasionally, when I was doing these films for the beginning of the Academy Awards, actors said, "what the hell is this?" And McNamara said, "What the hell is this?" Because after all, he has done tens of thousands of interviews and he had never done an interview with an Interrotron.

    He said, "What the hell is this?" And I said, "Well sir, it's my Interrotron, my interviewing machine." He said, "I don't care what you call it, I don't like it." I said, "Well please have a seat." He sat down and I never heard another peep out of him, at least about that. 

    Everybody likes the Interrotron.

    I was going to ask whether you think Rumsfeld is lying to us or lying to himself, but you think it's just wishful thinking?

    Well that's a form of lying to yourself. If he really thinks that simply by gerrymandering vocabulary that you can turn a defeat into a victory, I would say I think that's a form of self-deception. You really think that our war effort in Iraq was successful, then yes, please give me a definition of victory.

    I heard him on CNN the other day talking about Syria, and again with Iraq. They said that Iraq didn't turn out how we all thought, and he's like, "Who is saying that, tell me who is saying that." I just thought what?

    I would say that he is in denial, which is kind of an understatement.

    Which is why you find him so interesting.

    Yeah. Indeed. Also I'm amazed that he's never been called on a lot of stuff. It actually does amaze me. I tell this story—I think it does illuminate something: I had a rough cut screening at MIT and a friend of mine who is a mathematician said, "You know it's all contradictions? He just talks in contradictions." And I said yes, thank you.

    The very beginning of the film: If you want peace prepare for war, preparing for war can lead to war, tralalalala. And from a contradiction what can you do? My mathematician friend, she pointed this out to me. Why, from a contradiction you can prove anything!

    This, by the way, is true of all my interview subjects, that I do not want them to die prior to the interview.

    And I do point that out to him at the very beginning of the film. If both are true where the hell are we? We are nowhere. We are in Looney Tunes land. Guess what—because he loves this metaphor—we are chasing the wrong rabbit. I assume the metaphor's out of Lewis Carrol.

    In addition to not wanting him to die before you got a chance to do the film—

    This, by the way, is true of all my interview subjects, that I do not want them to die prior to the interview. This is a common theme that goes through all of my work.

    Did you care about the cultural moment? Do you care about politics right now? Did you want the film to provide insight or enter the conversation people are having?

    That wasn't the idea going into it. The idea going into it was this book came out called Known and Unknown, and I read it. I deserve a pat on the back for reading it. It's a cinderblock of a book. 

    And I became aware of the snowflakes, which fascinated me. Actually I haven't talked about this at all this go-around, but at the beginning I would say this is like a Borges story.

    It's like a maze.

    It's like a maze or a labyrinth. I kept thinking of the guy in “Funes, the Memorious” who remembers everything and hence remembers nothing. Or maybe it's its own fable. The guy who surrounded himself with memos of his own life. So many, many, many—let me do it a couple more times—many, many, many memos that he really successfully obliterated the world around him. It became his own private solipsistic crazy world of his own devising and he was powerful enough to make it stick.

    I asked him, how many people working for you when you're Sec. Def.? It depends on how you tally it up, three or four million. It's all the military, the reservists, the people working with the Pentagon, tralalalala. And what's your annual budget, what are you dealing with? A trillion dollars, give or take a few pennies. It's unimaginable.

    Was he the most frustrating interview subject you've ever had?

    He was pretty damn frustrating. There was a reviewer who wrote that I never challenged him. Well, that hurts my feelings. You never challenged him. I don't want to sound like Rumsfeld. Maybe I am just like him. Who the hell knows? But there's challenging him and then there's challenging him.

    There's a David Frost or a Mike Wallace idea of interviewing. It's a boxing match—who lands the heaviest blows. Errol delivers an uppercut to the left side of the head. Don replied with a roundhouse that put Errol on his knees. It is simply a different way of telling a story.

    I can't remember the novel, or maybe it's an essay, by Marlowe. Marlowe talks about the perfect executioner, and he says, the perfect executioner is so gifted in what he does that the executed doesn't even know that he has just been killed.

    For example, when I contradict Rumsfeld with the Schlesinger report. He says there's no migration of policies at Guantanamo, at Iraq and Afghanistan. I read to him from the Schlesinger report. Is the argument that after having contradicted him, I'm supposed to say to him, "Sir, you have said 'P' and I have just read something that shows it's untrue, it's not 'P.' Are you aware of that fact?"

    Am I supposed to say that? Maybe I am. Is there a rulebook for journalism? For interviews? I like the fact that he just sits there almost like a bullfrog on a lily pad looking at me and says "I'd agree with that, I'd agree with that." 

    Maybe this is a failure of my art, I don't know. But there's something so deeply interesting about that moment to me. And the pause after.

    I like this movie. I think it's one of the better things that I've done. And I usually hate what I've done. So I think I hate this less.