Ask documentarian Errol Morris how he'd characterize his latest film, The Unknown Known, and he has a surprisingly simple answer. "I call this my nonfiction horror movie," Morris says. The subject of this cinema vérité chiller: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who sat with the filmmaker for over 30 hours, tracing his long career in public service from the Nixon to Dubya eras. Morris didn't fuss with reels of stock footage, talking heads, or vintage baby pictures. Instead, he just turned his camera on one of the Bush Administration's most controversial conservative figures (who's still making headlines thanks to his penchant for jaw-dropping quotes) and simply let the man talk. And talk. And…
As in Morris' Oscar-winning doc The Fog of War (2003) — a similar first-person portrait of another former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara — Morris offers his subject a chance to contextualize his career decisions. Unlike the remorseful McNamara, however, Rumsfeld never second-guesses his actions regarding Vietnam, Iraq, or his time in the Bush administration while on camera. When asked why he thought Rumsfeld agreed to do the project, the 66-year-old filmmaker replied, "I like to think of myself as an honest broker, and that he talked to me because he must have, on some level, believed he would have an opportunity to explain himself. That this would all, somehow, be to his benefit."
The result, opening in New York and Los Angeles on April 2nd, is a work that feels largely free of any partisan spin; it's content to sit back and let the audience decide what they think of the subject. But in talking about the movie with Rolling Stone late last year, Morris shared a few opinions of his own on Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld still hasn't learned anything from Vietnam.
"Vietnam was one of the worst episodes in American history. What's [Rumsfeld's] lesson? Some things work out, some things don't — and that one didn't. He's untouched by history. In his reflection on what history means and what the effect of his policies have been on people around the world, he's learned little or nothing."
So much for Cheney as the Tin Man — it's unclear if Rummy has a heart.
"Clearly, he's a performance artist. When he says that Saddam is all pretend, you have to ask that same question about Donald Rumsfeld. He's so used to this element of performance, presentation and salesmanship, whether it's for a good cause or a bad cause. You wonder, what's left? Is there a core?"
Rumsfeld is not a just a phony, he's a real phony.
"Lying sort of presupposes this mental element. It suggests that you're deliberately telling an untruth, knowing that it's an untruth. I'm not sure that I'd say that he's lying. He's never reflected deeply enough to actually consider whether what he's saying is the truth or a lie."
Rumsfeld: 'Kill Team' Photos 'Much Worse' Than Abu Ghraib
Rumsfeld sees no difference between facts and beliefs.
"[His logic] is not about evidence, it's not about reason. What makes us something more than brutes is that we try to discriminate knowledge from superstition and belief, and on some level, Rumsfeld rejects that."
By operating without a belief in facts, Rumsfeld could do whatever he wanted.
"If you say the absence of evidence is an evidence of absence, it gives you license to conjure any kind of horror, threat, or menace — and act on it. It gives you license to imagine that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons when he doesn't. It allows you to imagine that he's in league with terrorist organizations, when there's no evidence. It allows you to say whatever you feel like saying, sell it to the people, and act on it. To me, that's not about democracy. That sounds very, very, close to fascism."
Humility in politics is often scarce, but always welcome.
"I would like our public servants to be a little bit more humble, and to realize that we're all human and can make mistakes. No one asks the Secretary of Defense to be perfect or always to make the right choices. But we can ask a person who has such immense power to actually think carefully about what he's doing and why."