Errol Morris’ Donald Rumsfeld portrait, The Unknown Known, debuted in Telluride over the weekend and is running in competition here in Venice. Morris, the Oscar-winning director of The Fog Of War, which looked at former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, says he decided to concentrate on Rumsfeld after the publication of the latter’s 2011 autobiography Known And Unknown: A Memoir. It was then that Morris became aware of the Bush administration Defense Secretary’s “snowflake” memos — the thousands of missives that Rumsfeld wrote during his time at the Pentagon — which became a key element in the film (see video here). His curiosity piqued, Morris wrote Rumsfeld a letter and enclosed a copy of The Fog Of War. “His lawyer told me that I was delusional. ‘This man will never under any circumstances talk to you’.” But within a week, he had an invitation to Rumsfeld’s office in Washington, Morris told reporters today. Ultimately, he conducted 33 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld over 11 days in a studio outside Boston.
Despite both having held the same post, Rumsfeld, a key architect of the Iraq War, and the late McNamara, a key architect of the Vietnam War, are “very, very, very different.” The latter is “The Flying Dutchman”, Morris said, “traveling the world searching for redemption and never finding it.” Rumsfeld, on the other hand, is more like the “Cheshire Cat, who at the very end vanishes and is left with just a smile.”
Some have criticized the doc for not getting Rumsfeld to break with a tendency to obfuscate. But for the director, the goal was not to “endlessly contradict him. I much prefer when he contradicts himself.” He added, “If the goal ultimately of filmmaking is to get your protagonist to confess, to say he’s sorry and apologize to the world, in this instance that’s not going to happen. And I don’t even believe that’s the goal.”
Rumsfeld is, however, the “quintessential” Errol Morris character, the director has said. Expanding on that today, Morris said he’s made a number of movies over the years about people who “seem to be completely unaware of themselves… The word we often use is ‘clueless’. That’s the central feeling I’m left with at the end of making this movie.” But there’s also a “central mystery” which is “Does he believe in what he’s saying?”
After finishing The Fog Of War, Morris continued to interview McNamara “for several years.” He says he might like to do the same with Rumsfeld. “You betcha there are questions he didn’t answer.” Radius-TWC is releasing The Unknown Known in the U.S. with a History Channel broadcast to follow.