Challenging the Believing-Is-Seeing Mindset: Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld and 'The Unknown Known'
By Ron Deutsch
In her 2011 New York Times review of Errol Morris' collection of essays, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Kathryn Shultz describes the book as a "kind of staged re-creation of the battle between the Errol Morris, who believes in irrefutable conclusions (and in the ethics and efficacy of his own particular means of arriving at them), and the Errol Morris who possesses a deeply personal understanding that the truth very often evades us." This seems to be a decent critique of Morris' entire body of work.
Morris spent time as a private detective as a young man, and all his documentary films could well be described as "investigations." From the pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven to his latest film, The Unknown Known, a Kafka-esque journey into the mind of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Morris seeks to uncover not just the truths therein, but also how we often delude ourselves from seeing those truths. Perhaps, then, it is not just that "the truth often evades us," but also that we very often construct ways of evading acceptance of the truth.
"I've made so many movies over the years about characters who seem to be utterly clueless about who they are and what they have done," says Morris. "Whether it's Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death, or David Harris in The Thin Blue Line...a whole array of characters over the years. And probably first and foremost among them is Donald Rumsfeld, a man absolutely convinced of his own rectitude. There's this huge, yawning gulf between how he sees himself and what he's done, and the reality of who he is and what he's done. And that's really what the movie's about."
Rumsfeld has spent the majority of his life in public service. After graduating from Princeton, he joined the Navy, then landed in Washington, DC as an assistant to a congressman. He went on to serve three terms as a congressman himself, resigning in his fourth term to join the Nixon Administration. He then left Washington (or perhaps was eased out, as Morris implies in the film) to become Ambassador to NATO, where he was able to avoid the fallout of Watergate. Under President Gerald Ford, he was White House chief of staff, then secretary of defense. He later returned to serve as a special envoy under President Ronald Reagan, and finally returned as secretary of defense under President George W. Bush.
To quote from the biography on his website, "During his tenure, Secretary Rumsfeld led the Defense Department in the response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to include the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the liberation of Iraq from the regime of Saddam Hussein, and overseeing the reform and transformation of America's Armed Forces to be better able to meet the challenges of the 21st Century." It is Rumsfeld's tenure in the Bush Administration that is the primary focus of The Unknown Known.
Morris likens what he's uncovered about Rumsfeld to a film review by Argentinean author Jorges Luis Borges of one of the great mysterious and unfathomable characters of all time, Charles Foster Kane. Borges wrote of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, "At the end, we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: The detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances." Borges then quotes a line from a CK Chesterton story that "nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth." And for Morris, Rumsfeld is also a "labyrinth with no center."
"I've found that a lot of people writing about [The Unknown Known]—and I hesitate to use the words—'don't get it,'" Morris explains. "In focusing on whether or not I backed Rumsfeld into a corner to get him to admit to something, they completely miss the whole point of the film. We have this idea that someone like Rumsfeld is hiding something and that my job is to pin him to the mat and get him to confess what he was really doing. It's a different movie from that. It may accomplish that goal in a way that's really quite different from what you'd expect, at least certainly different from what I would have expected. I found myself in the middle of a strange hall of mirrors. I think we want to think that the world isn't out of control, that when bad things happen, they're done by bad people who knowingly do bad things. My overwhelming feeling, having spent all this time with Rumsfeld, and having made this movie based on all these interviews with him, is that there is somehow nothing there, or what is there is so meager in comparison with what you should imagine should be there."
Morris and Rumsfeld spent 33 hours, over 11 days and four trips to Boston, filming together in, as Morris ironically notes, "the same studio I interviewed Lyndie England in for Standard Operating Procedure." (England was one of 11 US Military personnel court-martialed in connection with the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal.)
During the first set of interviews, Rumsfeld told Morris a story, which is included in the film, about Saddam Hussein and how the Iraqi leader had, during his reign, "become disconnected from reality; he had lost touch with who he was—worshiped by children, kowtowed to," Morris recalls. "And then Rumfeld says very directly to me that in the end, he became 'all pretend.'"
"And he's just looking at me!" Morris exclaims, amazed that the grinning, apparently clueless Rumsfeld can't see that, in Morris' opinion, his assessment of Hussein could so easily also be taken as an assessment of the former secretary himself—that he is "all pretend."
"I think of Rumsfeld as almost an aluminum-siding salesman," Morris continues. "You know, he's knocked on the door and he's going to protect your home from further rot. There's a slickness, a slipperiness. But like all really gifted salesmen, he's a person who actually believes what he's pedaling. What struck me as so amazing, right from the beginning of these interviews, is that he had zero self-awareness. And then it's sort of easy to imagine how it all happened. You put the various elements together and you see kind of the historical disaster forming in front of your eyes. This lack of self-awareness, the insane hubris and ambition, the vanity, the belief in his own infallibility, his own rectitude. I often refer to the movie as a kind of mid-western nightmare: Babbitt meets Beelzebub."
The meaning of the film's title, The Unknown Known, comes from Rumsfeld's response to a question at a 2003 press conference regarding what evidence the Bush Administration had that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Rumsfeld's answer was, "There are known knowns-there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns—that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don't know." The statement took the Plain English Society's Golden Bull Award that year for "the choicest gobbledygook." In the film, Morris and Rumsfeld discuss the fourth permutation of those two words, which Rumsfeld left out of his original response: "the unknown knowns."
For a man obsessed with evidence and truth as Morris is, Rumsfeld's infamous statement doesn't sit well in his heart. "Here's my real hatred of the 'unknown known, the unknown unknown,' and all that nonsense," the filmmaker explains. "To the next person who tells me how brilliant that is, I often say, 'You think it's brilliant? Explain to me why.' And then I point out that the progress of mankind is based on separating fact from fiction, belief from fantasy, truth from untruth. It's not the known from the unknown. It's knowing when we're deceived, self-deceived. It's knowing when we believe something that's untrue, that is in error; knowing that we're fallible; knowing that we can and do make mistakes constantly. That's how progress is made. I think what I'm after in all of my films is a recognition of our own fallibility, that we can be wrong about almost everything. And somehow, Rumsfeld managed to change the nature of the discussion. I think he got lost in his own mind when he said it, in that kind of labyrinth with no center and no content."
Morris also compares Rumsfeld to the Dallas Police in The Thin Blue Line, his film about the wrongly convicted Randall Adams. Specifically, Morris refers to the scene when the police investigator claims, "'We didn't want [Adams] to tell us what he thought; we wanted him to tell us what he knew.' They [the police] had an inflexible idea of what actually had transpired and the only evidence they were interested in collecting was evidence that, of course, supported that view. It's the believing-is-seeing mindset, which is the mindset we all have. It's one of the themes I've worked at for years. I think they are all of one piece; The Thin Blue Line and The Unknown Known are very similar stories, as is my book Believing Is Seeing.
"Look, I know why I made The Unknown Known," Morris continues. "I made it because Rumsfeld presided over, what was for me, one of the great disasters during my lifetime in American history. It's no secret I was opposed to the war from the very, very beginning.
"When I say to Rumsfeld that maybe we shouldn't have gone at all, I mean it," Morris says. "The crime—and it is a war crime, make no mistake—was to go to war. And once you make that decision, once that dye is cast, all the rest of it becomes possible—the detainees, the abuse, the torture, the abrogation of the Geneva convention. It didn't have to play out in that way. But you could just see the writing on the wall. I asked Rumsfeld about the torture memos. The torture memos horrify me. They personally horrify me that you could get people in the government to write memos saying that it's okay to torture people. I mean, this is America, for God's sake. What are we supposed to be? What is our role in the world?
"And what does Rumsfeld say to me about these torture memos?" he adds. "‘Well, they weren't really torture memos, so-called torture memos. And anyways, they were approved by the attorney general, who was elected by the people,' and on and on and on again. And then he gives you sort of the pièce de résistance. He says, 'Anyways, I never read them.' I was actually shocked! I said to him, 'Really? You never read them?'"
Morris notes that The Fog of War, his earlier film in which he interviewed another former secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, who managed the Vietnam War under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, was a response to his contention that in 2003 we were beginning again to make the same mistakes of Vietnam. "I don't believe anything redeems Iraq or Vietnam," Morris says. "These are horrible historical tragedies, which, I might add, we all in some degree participated in. Look, I'm really proud to be an American. I value this country and they did terrible, terrible things to America—to our ideals, what we stand for, to who we supposedly are. It's not the zeitgeist of America, or of anything. It's the result of what happens when imagination is left unfettered: Reason is discarded, evidence is discounted and you enter into a landscape of nightmare."
He adds that his co-producer/wife Julia Sheehan has perhaps best captured the essence of the difference between the two films, and the two men: ""McNamara is like the Flying Dutchman, who is destined to travel the entire world hoping and looking for redemption and not finding it. But Rumsfeld is like the Cheshire Cat. As Alice says, 'I've often seen a cat without a grin, but I've never seen a grin without a cat.'
"And at the heart of the movie, and which I've asked to put be on the poster, is the question: 'Why is this man smiling?'" Morris concludes. "There's that infernal grin. You can't tell whether the grin is for me or for him. And I think, or at least I'd like to think, that's kind of the nature of my art."
The Unknown Known opens in theaters April 2 in Los Angeles and New York through RADiUS-TWC.
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor to Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his trusty cat Miles.