Errol Morris is annoyed. He has just eased himself into a chair to discuss The Unknown Known, his portrait of former U.S. secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, when a journalist says something that makes him sit up and lean forward like a hunting dog.
In the film, Rumsfeld reads from a series of memos he’d written during the months leading up to and during the Iraq War, in which he floated a number of aphorisms that are simultaneously true (“All generalizations are false – including this one,” he says with a toothy Jack Lemmon smile) and potentially absurd. Informed that Rumsfeld comes off in the film as rational, Morris is aghast.
“I get scared when people talk about him as rational, because I think the whole movie really is an essay on his irrationality,” he explains amid the whirlwind that was last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “I see it as a kind of faux-rationality.”
At one point in The Unknown Known, for example, there is an archival clip of Rumsfeld during a 2002 press briefing, batting away reporters’ questions about insufficient data on Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program. “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” he tells them.
“That seems like it’s a reasonable principle,” Morris acknowledges. “Rational, perhaps. But to me, it’s one of the deepest articulations of irrationality I’ve ever heard. What are you saying? Are you saying that, because you have no evidence of something, therefore it exists?”
Words matter, argues Morris: After all, words like Rumsfeld’s formed part of an extraordinary public-relations effort that ultimately enabled the U.S. and its allies to launch the Iraq war in 2003. Words can help establish truth, or obscure it.
Rumsfeld seems to know this: Amid the blizzard of memos he issued while at the Pentagon – more than 20,000 over six years – there are a number of requests for someone to dig up dictionary definitions of terms such as ‘terrorism,’ ‘insurgency,’ ‘guerilla warfare,’ and ‘scapegoat.’
It’s as if, as the facts on the ground become harder to pin down, Rumsfeld hopes to find certainty in the words used to describe those facts.
Morris, meanwhile, is obsessive about epistemology. Some years ago, he appeared in the National Film Board’s Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary to discuss his search for the truth with films such as The Thin Blue Line, his 1988 doc that helped exonerate an innocent man who had been sentenced to death for the murder of a Texas police officer. “The idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth – that truth is subjective – there’s truth for you, there’s truth for me, everybody has their own truth? For me, that’s nonsense talk,” he says in the film.
In The Unknown Known, Morris has Rumsfeld revisit his own words and actions during the Iraq War in light of the truth that emerged. But if the filmmaker is hoping to provoke cognitive dissonance as he did in The Fog of War – his Oscar-winning profile of Robert McNamara, another former Secretary of Defense who oversaw a failed American war – his new leading man may simply not be up to the task.
Even as he re-reads memos he had written arguing that prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay were not protected by the Geneva Convention, Rumsfeld refuses to recognize any connection to the offences at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
In person, Morris mentions some of Rumsfeld’s other true-but-contradictory aphorisms (‘Failure to prepare for war can be a cause of war, and preparing for war can be a cause of war.’) “It’s kind of using specious logic, reasoning, seeming philosophical principles, to obfuscate, obscure, and confuse,” Morris says.
“Here’s what I think is even worse about it: I think he uses it not just to confuse the people he’s talking to, but to confuse himself. I don’t see him as a meretricious, mendacious guy behind the curtain, rubbing his hands together. I see him as a true believer in this nonsense. And that scares me even more. Evidence seems to count for so little in his universe.”
He adds: “You just see that he’s adrift in his own verbiage.”
At 81, though Rumsfeld has been in the public eye for more than five decades, the implication of the film is that he himself is the unknown known.
Which may be why Morris isn’t interested in hammering away at him, in proving his lies. Still, says Morris, that tendency to imply judgment rather than pronounce it “creates trouble for me, because it leaves audiences unsatisfied, because they want that David Frost or Mike Wallace moment. They want … not just the confrontation, I think it’s more than confrontation. They want to see punches landed, and acknowledged. They want to see the interview subject backed up into a corner.”
He pauses for a long time and seems to consider what that means – for himself, his films, and his audiences: “I do it halfway each time. Maybe it’s perverse. I don’t know.”
As The Unknown Known hits theatres, Morris is now in pre-production on Holland, Michigan, a thriller starring Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as a serial killer. It’s his first fictional film. “I’ve done a lot of (documentaries). I work with actors all the time, I’m a visual storytelling kind of guy, and I love the visual possibilities of this thing,” he says, referring to the feature.
“Also, there are so many people making so many features that are so bad,” he says, chortling now. “Could I do worse? Maybe. We’ll see.”
The Unknown Known is being released into theatres on Apr. 4