Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) has made a documentary focusing on Donald Rumsfeld’s life in government, largely, though not exclusively, on his role as Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.
(Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, won an Academy Award as Best Documentary in 2003. I did not see it, but by many accounts it was an insightful, powerful film in which Morris was able to draw out McNamara about his role in the Vietnam War. One reviewer, Fred Kaplan, The Lies of The Fog of War, praised Morris for his ability to capture McNamara’s introspection, However, Kaplan also writes about the many “instances of McNamara’s mendacity” in that documentary.)
Along with Ellen and several friends, last night we saw a pre-release of Morris’ new film, The Unknown Known. If you plan to see this documentary, soon to be released nationwide, stop reading now as there are spoilers in what follows.
This film largely consists of Errol Morris interviewing Donald Rumsfeld for a period of 100 minutes. The audience never sees Morris and only hears his voice. Interspersed throughout are pictures of memos written over a six year period by the defense secretary — “snowflakes,” Rumsfeld calls them. There are also file photos and video from various times and activities in Rumsfeld’s public life and a musical score that adds to the film.
For those of us who lived through this period of our history, there is much that is familiar, particularly the press conferences and Rumsfeld’s public appearances. Personally, I found this man arrogant then and arrogant now. Although he is less abrasive in these interviews than he was during his press appearances while in office, he rarely seems genuinely reflective and seeks to ‘spin’ and to ‘charm’ Morris with words (“known unknowns,” “known knowns,” “unknown knows,” etc.).
And Morris lets Rumsfeld get away with not truly taking ownership for his and the Bush administrations decisions and actions. Particularly galling to me was Rumsfeld denial that there was any attempt on their part to equate the events of 9/11 with the situation in Iraq and with Saddam Hussein. Morris, tho he seems incredulous about this, lets him get away with this and other lies.
When Morris produces evidence from memos written by Rumsfeld that contradicts something Rumsfeld has just said, the secretary just smiles, nods his head, and sometimes even agrees. Morris continually lets him off the hook.
If this were a boxing or wrestling match, Rumsfeld seems to comes out on top.
But as a group of us discussed the movie following its screening and then continued our discussion at dinner, a disagreement emerged. Several people were angry at Rumsfeld — for his mendacity, for his unwillingness to look honestly at himself and his actions, and for a continuation of his arrogance — and at Morris – - for his allowing Rumsfeld to do those things.
Others said they thought Morris was intentionally letting Rumsfeld ‘hang’ himself, that by not arguing nor confronting him more openly, Morris was letting “Rumsfeld be Rumsfeld” with the result being that the audience was able to see Rumsfeld for what he was and what he continues to be.
I agree with both views, except I’m not sure that Morris was purposefully allowing Rumsfeld to spin him. Rather, I think that despite Morris’ questions, despite his use of memos, despite his editing of the documentary, and despite his decision(s) not to confront him more openly, Rumsfeld largely could not hide who he was and who he is.
If you are reading this after having seen the film, please weigh in on these views and add your own.
Note: Three of the films we saw in our Sunday morning Cinema Club are now ‘out’ and available. You can see mini-reviews of these by clicking on the following links. I rated them all between four and five stars: The Lunchbox****, Particle Fever*****, and Tim’s Vermeer****1/2.