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Errol Morris Talked to Rumsfeld for 33 Hours. All He Got Was ‘The Unknown Known.’

The new documentary fails to elicit answers to the most important, and still unresolved, questions about the Iraq War

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Errol Morris and Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known (Nubar Alexanian)
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Errol Morris tweets. When he’s not creating Oscar-winning documentaries, writing long-form essays and books, two of which are coming out in paperback later this year, making over a thousand often fabulous commercials for Apple, Taco Bell, Exxon, Acura, Citibank, Southern Comfort, and dozens of other companies listed on his website, he has found time to post 3,220 tweets in just over 15 months. Morris has 46,500 followers—not exactly Lindsay Lohan’s 8 million, but a respectable cult following. Lohan claims to follow 319 people. Morris follows no one.

Most of Morris’ recent tweets, and retweets, concern his new documentary, The Unknown Known, or TUK, as he refers to it, his second film about a controversial secretary of defense during a disastrous war; in this case, it’s Donald H. Rumsfeld. The film is a bookend, of sorts, to his Academy Award-winning The Fog of War, about Robert S. McNamara, who presided over the Vietnam debacle under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It is both inevitable and appropriate, Morris tells me, that the films will be compared.

McNamara and Rumsfeld have much in common. Both were identified early on as hard-charging whiz kids whose rise to power reflected talent, discipline, and raw ambition. But Morris clearly likes McNamara, as his interviews reflect. McNamara discusses the intelligence failures that result in bad policies, human fallibility, and the irrationality of war. “We lucked out” in the Cuban missile crisis when Khrushchev backed down in the near-catastrophic confrontation. Morris doesn’t push back when McNamara asserts that “in a sense” America “won” that round because “we got the missiles out without war.” He permits McNamara to utter platitudes about the human race’s need to think “more about killing,” and more “about conflict” in a WMD world.

McNamara never really accepts responsibility for his part in the war in which over 58,000 Americans and well over 2 million Vietnamese died. When there were only 16,000 American military advisers in Vietnam, he says, “I had recommended removing them all.” “We were wrong,” he notes dryly, about the false report that U.S. Navy ships had repeatedly been fired upon in the Gulf of Tonkin, which prompted Congress to authorize overwhelmingly the use of force in Vietnam. Asked by Morris about the use of Agent Orange and other chemical agents that inflicted such devastating suffering on Vietnamese and even on American soldiers exposed to the defoliant, McNamara opines: “In order to do good, you may have to do evil.” Or as Rumsfeld might have said years later, “Stuff happens.” But again, Morris does not push back.

Morris included a copy of The Fog of War when he wrote Rumsfeld a letter asking for an interview almost a decade later. He wasn’t sure whether Rumsfeld ever saw the movie, he told me—Morris, in fact, suspects he hadn’t. But later on, Rumsfeld said of McNamara: “That man has nothing to apologize for.” And so it began.

Morris traveled to Washington to meet Rumsfeld to see whether they could work with each other, as Morris put it. He offered to do several initial interviews and assured Rumsfeld that if he decided not to proceed, the public would never see them. In their first meeting, Rumsfeld invited Morris to watch him field calls from reporters. Morris, exquisitely intelligent, admitted to an interviewer about feeling awkward about the session. He described watching the former secretary’s performance with the press as almost “intimate.” Should he even be there, listening to this? Morris asks. But of course, the documentarian stays and watches.

Morris insisted, of course, on total editorial control. Giving Rumsfeld a say on final cut—which Rumsfeld may or may not have tried to demand—would undermine the project’s credibility, he tells him. But such assurances were hardly necessary. By inviting Morris to watch him fend off the press, as he had done so expertly at his memorable Pentagon press conferences, his subject had signaled his intentions: The interviews with Morris would be pure sport, verbal combat in which Morris would seek to penetrate the former secretary’s inner thoughts and motivations about the Iraq war and other mistakes, and he, Rumsfeld, would stubbornly resist the probing. From the start, Rumsfeld must have envisaged their competition as an exhibition game in which one of America’s most expert dodgers could strut his stuff.

Rumsfeld clearly enjoyed their encounters, volunteering to travel to Cambridge, Mass., to subject himself to the rigors of Errol Morris’ trademark shooting style, his “interrotron”—a word Morris’ wife coined “because it combined two important concepts” in a documentary film—“terror and interview.” But Rumsfeld clearly is not terrified. He stares unblinkingly into the camera and smiles and smiles. He cheerfully agrees to read some of his own memos—a selection by Morris of some of the 20,000 he estimates he wrote during his six years as defense secretary. Morris has done his homework; he, at least, has read the tsunami of “snowflakes” that showered down from Rumsfeld’s Pentagon office. Morris decides that the memos will enable him to tell history “from the inside out,” he says, and perhaps to evade Rumsfeld’s defense mechanisms. Rumsfeld is clearly proud of the memos. He tells Morris that he would take nothing back, even when Morris tries to show that some of the snowflakes are contradictory.

Joe Morgenstern, of the Wall Street Journal, aptly calls what emerges from their encounter—an almost-two-hour long effort to encircle and outwit a man more skilled than most at the art of deflection—the “Fog of Words.” Just as Rumsfeld adroitly evades questions he was repeatedly asked by often-exasperated Pentagon reporters before and during the war, he artfully stonewalls the Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Morris must have felt frustrated: His fascinating four-part discussion of the making of the film, in the the New York Times Opinionator section, describes his interviews with three reporters who came the closest to pinning Rumsfeld down before the war on issues he wished to avoid—specifically, the thinness of the intelligence community’s evidence that Saddam had retained chemical and biological weapons and was still trying to develop a nuclear bomb, and the lack of evidence for an ostensible operational tie between Iraq and al-Qaida, as Rumsfeld and other senior Bush officials had claimed.

In the film, Morris dutifully tries asking crucial questions about why the intelligence was so bad and why Rumsfeld, among others, believed it. But Morris seems resigned to the fact that his quarry will evade the trap. Asked about the quality of the intelligence, Rumsfeld replies calmly: “It was thought to be the best intelligence available.” Asked the “gotcha” question about whether it would have been better not to have invaded Iraq given the lack of WMD and operational ties to al-Qaida—giving him an opportunity to make both news and make Morris’ prodigious effort required viewing, Rumsfeld replies: “Only time will tell.”

Once or twice, Morris directly challenges Rumsfeld. When Rumsfeld says he never read the so-called “torture memos” about enhanced interrogation techniques, Morris interrupts Rumsfeld’s narrative. “Really?” Morris declares. Asked about whether he is obsessed with Iraq, Rumsfeld demonstrates a classic evasion technique—when mounting a defense, take the offensive. “Boy, you like that word,” he replies. Don Rumsfeld then describes own view of Don Rumsfeld, which is “cool, measured,” i.e., the opposite of obsessive.

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Errol Morris Talked to Rumsfeld for 33 Hours. All He Got Was ‘The Unknown Known.’

The new documentary fails to elicit answers to the most important, and still unresolved, questions about the Iraq War