'The Unknown Known': Donald Rumsfeld through His Own Eyes in a Documentary about the Ex-Defense Secretary, the Subject Is the Only on E Who Speaks

By David D'Arcy | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

'The Unknown Known': Donald Rumsfeld through His Own Eyes in a Documentary about the Ex-Defense Secretary, the Subject Is the Only on E Who Speaks


David D'Arcy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


When Errol Morris was preparing to film "The Unknown Known," a portrait of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he sent Mr. Rumsfeld a DVD of "The Fog of War," which earned Mr. Morris the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary feature for its scrutiny of the managing of the Vietnam War by another former defense secretary, Robert McNamara.

Mr. Rumsfeld "told me when he met me that he hated 'The Fog of War,'" Mr. Morris recalled. "He said, 'That man has nothing to apologize for.'"

"The Unknown Known," which opens today at the Manor in Squirrel Hill, draws on 11 days of filmed interviews with Mr. Rumsfeld, 81, who is not apologetic about anything in his long career in politics. Mr. Morris also read thousands of memos that Mr. Rumsfeld wrote while in various government positions. Mr. Rumsfeld called them "snowflakes."

"He surrounded himself with a paper tsunami of his own devising," the filmmaker says, "a world of words, a nimbus, a miasma."

The film's title comes from a phrase Mr. Rumsfeld used to answer a question seeking evidence for the White House claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Whether it's clarity or obfuscation, Mr. Morris says, it's Rumsfeld.

Mr. Morris' goal in the film was to capture Mr. Rumsfeld according to Mr. Rumsfeld.

"It's history from the inside out. This is a history of how Rumsfeld sees himself and the world. It's not the 20 or so people saying who this man is," Mr. Morris says. "I could get a hundred people to provide various sound bites about Donald Rumsfeld. That's not the nature of the enterprise, not what I wanted to do, not what interested me."

Mr. Rumsfeld agreed but set ground rules - "conditions that I gladly assented to," Mr. Morris says. "First - that I would not interview anyone else, because I didn't want to. I'll agree to that."

"The other - no narration - I'll agree to that. But he had no right of approval or final cut," said Mr. Morris, who noted that interviewer and interviewee got along most of the time. "He's charming, he's well-spoken, he's friendly, he's avuncular. I used to say that I was suffering from avunculitis at the end of the day."

Their polite conversations took Mr. Morris and Mr. Rumsfeld from Congress to the Office of Management and Budget in President Richard Nixon's first administration (Mr. Rumsfeld decamped to NATO offices in Brussels when Watergate loomed over Nixon, who was wary of the younger aide), to the Gerald Ford White House (where Mr. Rumsfeld was the youngest defense secretary in U.S. history) to a brief run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while Rumsfeld was defense secretary again under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Morris' high, soft voice can be heard slightly off-mike when he asks questions or corrects assertions by Mr. Rumsfeld - for example, that Mr. Rumsfeld never authorized brutal interrogation methods used at Abu Ghraib prison. (A Rumsfeld memo did.) And we hear Nixon and H.R. Haldeman discussing Mr. Rumsfeld's ambition with skepticism.

Otherwise, the voice we hear in the film is Donald Rumsfeld's. …

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