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Movie Interviews

One Documentary Later, Rumsfeld's Inner World Remains 'Unknown'

Originally published on Mon March 31, 2014 3:03 pm

Filmmaker Errol Morris is famous for trying to get inside other people's minds and understand the motivations behind the choices they've made. In his most famous film, The Fog of War, Morris sat down one-on-one with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to talk about the decisions McNamara made in Vietnam. During the course of the conversation, McNamara makes the stunning admission that some of his actions amounted to war crimes.

In his new film The Unknown Known, Morris takes the same approach with Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense who oversaw the U.S. war in Iraq. He saw with Rumsfeld for hours and hours of interviews. But this time, his results were different — and much more disappointing.

Morris talks to NPR's Rachel Martin about why Rumsfeld, despite being cooperative and sincere, was a frustrating, difficult man to interview.


Interview Highlights

On why The Unknown Known was so hard to make

[It was] one of the most difficult interviews I've ever done. Interviews, in my mind, should be investigative — you shouldn't know what you're going to hear going into them, you should be surprised. And I was surprised. But I was surprised by how little I found out, not by how much I found out.

On what parts of Rumsfeld's life made Morris see him differently

His failure to engage, meaningfully engage, the central issues of our time. I ask him about the war in Vietnam — he was in the Oval Office with President Ford, Henry Kissinger, as we evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. I ask him, "What did you learn?" His answer: "Some things work out, some things don't, that didn't."

I ask him about the torture memos that came out of the Bush Administration: He said he never read them. To me, the most shocking thing about the interview was not his insincerity, but quite the opposite. The fact that he was telling the truth, but the truth was about a failure to really think about anything.

On whether Morris was looking for a particular admission from Rumsfeld, about "known knowns," that he didn't get

I was probably looking for a lot of things that I didn't get. This expression, which he's famous for, "the known known," "the known unknown," "the unknown unknown," et cetera, et cetera, many people have told me, "well, this is really brilliant," and I often ask, "Why"? I don't find it brilliant.

In one of the press conferences, indeed, it's the press conference where he first brings out this idea about the "known known" and the "known unknown," he's asked a question by Jim Miklaszewski, the NBC Pentagon correspondent. "What proof, what evidence do you have, that Saddam Hussein is in possession of WMD or is giving them to terrorist organizations?" [Rumsfeld answered:] "There are known knowns, there are things we know we know, and we also know there are known unknowns, that is so say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know." It's a question that he can't answer and won't answer. The "known known" becomes an evasion.

On why he was disappointed with Rumsfeld's interview

I'd hoped that there was more there. I feel a little guilty saying all this. Donald Rumsfeld was cooperative, he came to Boston, where I live. He was charming, he was gracious, he gave me access, for the very first time, to these memos which he had written over the years, and yet, in the end, I think this is the right word: I'm horrified.

... I made Fog of War now 10 years ago. Two Secretaries of Defense, two disastrous wars: Vietnam, Iraq. I could feel in my interviews with McNamara his desperate attempts to understand what he had done, to figure it all out. Here, 10 years later, no attempt whatsoever to figure it out. [Rumsfeld] has this obsession with language, and with words, and definitions — and in the end, the feeling is that we've descended into a sea of words.

On whether he's heard from Rumsfeld since the film

I told Donald Rumsfeld that I would show him cuts as we went along, and I would encourage him to comment. He had no control over the film, but I was interested in his comments. He wanted me to stress that the policies of the Bush Administration were no different than the Clinton Administration with respect to Iraq. I told him I don't agree. [He] didn't like all of this attention that was given to Abu Ghraib and to torture — to me, one of the blackest marks against the Bush Administration. And yes, it's an important part of the film, and yes, it should be.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Filmmaker Errol Morris is famous for trying to get inside other people's minds to try to understand the motivations behind the choices they've made. In his most famous film, "The Fog of War," Morris sat down one on one with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to talk about the decisions he made in Vietnam. During the course of the conversation, McNamara makes a stunning admission that some of his actions amounted to war crimes. Morris takes the same approach with Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense who oversaw the war in Iraq - but this time with different results.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE UNKNOWN KNOWN")

ERROL MORRIS: Why the obsession with Iraq and Saddam?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Boy, you love that word, obsession. I can see the glow in your face when you say it.

MORRIS: Well, I'm a obsessive person.

RUMSFELD: Are you? I'm not. I'm cool and measured.

MARTIN: The film is called "The Unknown Known." Errol Morris joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MORRIS: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: You were quoted in a British newspaper saying that you hope some people go and see the Rumsfeld film because it was really hard to make. Why? Why was it hard to make?

MORRIS: Interviews, in my mind, should be investigative. You shouldn't know what you're going to hear going into them. You should be surprised. And I was surprised. But I was surprised by how little I found out, not by how much I found out.

MARTIN: And what were you going-in assumptions of Rumsfeld?

MORRIS: I had said to him the first time we met if we can provide an explanation to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, this would be an important public service. But I fear that I now know less about why we went to war in Iraq after having made this movie than I did at the very beginning.

MARTIN: When you put that to him, that that was purpose of the film, to explain to the American people why the war happened, he wanted to do that as well?

MORRIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: The film focuses on the Iraq War but you also try to give a fuller portrait of this man. You trace his political career. Were there any parts of his biography, of his profile, that opened a door and made you see him in a different way?

MORRIS: Yes. His failure to engage, meaningfully engage the central issues of our time. I ask him about the war in Vietnam. He was in the Oval Office with President Ford, Henry Kissinger as we evacuated the U.S. embassy in Saigon. I asked him what'd you learn? His answer: Some things work out, some things don't. That didn't. I ask him about the torture memos that came out of the Bush administration. He said he never read them. To me, the most shocking thing about the interview was not his insincerity but quite the opposite; the fact that he was telling the truth but the truth was about a failure to really think about anything.

MARTIN: The film is called "The Unknown Known," which was, you know, one of several machinations of a phrase that he repeated throughout his tenure the second time around. This is the secretary of defense overseeing Iraq. The two of you get locked into, at one point, a semantic argument about this phrase, the unknown known. Were you looking for some particular admission from him that you didn't get?

MORRIS: I think was probably looking for a lot of things that I didn't get. This expression, which he's famous for - the known known, the known unknown, the unknown unknown, etc., etc. - many people have told me, well, this is really brilliant. I often ask why. In one of the press conferences, indeed it's the press conference where he first brings out this idea about the known known and the known unknown, he was asked a question by Jim Miklaszewski, the NBC Pentagon correspondent: What proof, what evidence do you have that Saddam Hussein is in possession of WMD or is giving them to terrorist organizations?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE UNKNOWN KNOWN")

RUMSFELD: There's no evidence of it.

MORRIS: What's your evidence?

RUMSFELD: There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns. The ones we don't know we don't know.

MORRIS: And it's a question that he can't answer and won't answer. The known known becomes an evasion.

MARTIN: He does point out that a lot of the controversial policies of the Bush administration after 9/11 have been perpetuated by the Obama administration.

MORRIS: He does. I left that in the movie. But they're all a result of these policies. Obama has tried to deal with them, not perpetuate them.

MARTIN: Have you heard from Donald Rumsfeld since the film?

MORRIS: I told Donald Rumsfeld that I would show him cuts as we went along and I would encourage him to comment. He had no control over the film. But I was interested in his comments. He wanted me to stress that the policies of the Bush administration were not different than the Clinton administration with respect to Iraq. I told him I don't agree. Didn't like all of this attention that was given to Abu Ghraib and to torture, to me, one of the blackest marks against the Bush administration. This is not about a person who reflects on what he does. He was a person selling something - selling his belief that he was right and whatever others think, they are wrong.

MARTIN: The film is called "The Unknown Known." Errol Morris joined us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Mr. Morris.

MORRIS: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.