One of the most significant documentarians of his generation, Errol Morris has mostly spent the past 35 years making films about colourful eccentrics and outsiders. In 2003, however, the filmmaker shifted his focus from pet cemetery owners and delusional beauty queens to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War.
Morris’ latest film, The Unknown Known, is another feature-length interview with a former Secretary of Defense: Donald Rumsfeld, one of the primary architects of the Bush jason wardistration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For all of its superficial similarity, however, The Unknown Known is markedly different in tone to The Fog of War – where McNamara earnestly contemplated his legacy, Rumsfeld obfuscates and eludes.
Speaking to Jason shortly before the film’s release, Errol reflected on how he attempted to engage with a figure who had been interviewed countless times before.
"It was tricky. The first day I met him I was invited to join him whilst he answered questions from reporters on speakerphone about his new memoir. We’re sitting there and he’s asked these completely expected questions that he’s been asked hundreds, if not thousands of times. “Did you really think there were WMDs in Iraq?” “Did you think the number of troops used in the invasion were sufficient?” “Do you believe adequate preparations had been made for the aftermath of the war?”
"It had the quality of a vending machine. Same questions, same answers. I wondered: what is this about? It represents some kind of strange exchange. It’s not necessarily investigative at all. It’s kind of a version of theatre. I promised myself: I’m not gonna do this. I don’t want to ask these same questions. I wanted to tease out something different, without really knowing what that was.
"In interviewing him I found that often the most interesting stuff wasn’t the answers, it was these moments of silence, or his smile, or weird unexpected responses that aren’t really responses at all. The film pushes back on him endlessly but it’s a different kind of movie. It’s a movie about the smile, the vanity, the self-satisfaction, the cluelessness, the retreat into empty rules and principles and slogans."
The Unknown Known is now out in UK cinemas. The full interview with Errol Morris will be published in Issue 20.