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Donald Rumsfeld Is Finally Under Interrogation

“The Unknown Known”: The scope and limits of documentary

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Amicably divorced as secretary of defense, having written his memoir for no advance, and beginning to devote his fortune to retirement, Donald Rumsfeld bumped into Errol Morris, who is as much a documentary film-maker as Rummy is a secretary of defense. The prospect of some kind of movie arose, with Rummy buying into the consensus that Morris was the man for the job. Still, at one point, Morris felt he had to ask, “Have you seen The Fog of War? What do you think about that?”

Rumsfeld had no doubt—doubt is hardly his thing. “I hate it,” he said, referring to Morris’s 107-minute “documentary” in which Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense, 1961–1968, engages in a conversation about the illusions and the realities of Vietnam. The film was so absorbing it won an Oscar, because McNamara emerged as an intelligent man conscience-stricken over the years of fog. Others had suffered graver wounds, to be sure, but as a movie, The Fog of War was unusual in showing a political leader in distress. Why did Rummy hate that film? “Because that man had nothing to apologize for,” Rumsfeld told Morris. But why did Rumsfeld then agree to do an interview picture with Morris, without strings or right of approval, even to the point, as Morris felt, that he would have happily gone on talking and filming forever?

It’s not that Rumsfeld lacks intelligence, or the youthful edge that will spar with questioners and revel in scoring points. He has the exuberance and the shallow fierceness that could lead Boy Scouts out of the wilderness, back to camp, telling stories over hot cocoa. (He holds the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) He is a winner and winners don’t apologize, because they take care to guard their confidence. “Don’t apologize,” said John Wayne. “It’s a sign of weakness.” Fog, agony, distress, and so on were not Rummy’s burden: He entered into most problems with his mind made up. As the Duke of Wellington might have said, “I don’t know what he does to the enemy, but he frightens me.”

All of this comes to us as a “documentary” (just premiered at Telluride and Toronto) titled The Unknown Known, referring to a set of cockamamie formulas Rummy has for sorting out the world’s problems, all of which goes to prove that there is little mystery in solving problems if you’re a chump. So you are certain that x or y had WMD because that is what you guessed in advance. If the evidence ever looks different, you can always grin and say, well, evidence is a strange thing, known and unknown, scrambled or sunny-side up. Just eat your eggs.

As an investigation, The Unknown Known adds little to our memory of Rumsfeld’s press conferences and his lugubrious ruminations over what words meant. The marvel of the film (and of other Morris projects) is the cold lucidity of the light in undeviating close-up on the “witness.” Morris believes in the human face and he has invented the Interrotron device, a system whereby interviewer and subject can be filmed looking directly at each other. “When someone watches my films,” he says, “it is as though the characters are talking directly to them.” I’m not so sure about that; to me, it can feel like a mannered inquisition. But when he turns to “cinema,” to models, suggestive images, and, worst of all, words and definitions on screen, this gets to seem an old-fashioned exercise. It should be added that a childhood medical condition has left Morris without full stereoscopic vision.

One might guess that the best way into Donald Rumsfeld is through his association with Dick Cheney, and the way those two men ran the world for so long. That would require years of research and many interviews to restore the mosaic of a crucial friendship in political life. There is such a film, The World According to Dick Cheney, directed by R. J. Cutler, playing on Showtime these days. It is sometimes more informative and provocative than The Unknown Known. Cheney never hides his serpentine nature, whereas Rumsfeld can play all the animals in the menagerie, especially the Cheshire Cat, who will leave his cocksure grin hanging in the air, smug that “documentary” never laid a glove on him. Rummy knows how the media work, and he has seen that if you stare long enough into Morris’s Interrotron lens its intimidating force wilts. “Chalk that one up to me, Errol,” he crows at one point in the film.

There is another side to Morris, more the lawyer than the documentary journalist. His most compelling early film was The Thin Blue Line (1988), which wondered whether a convicted killer in Texas was really guilty—and got the man freed. His techniques were fresh then with a zest for investigation. Morris had actually worked as a private detective. In a similar vein, in 2012, he published a book called A Wilderness of Error, a persistent and troubling reexamination of the Jeffrey MacDonald case. MacDonald has been in prison for decades for the murder of his wife and two children in army housing at Fort Bragg in 1970. The case accumulated books and TV movies long ago, including Fatal Vision (by Joe McGinniss) and a disturbing, ambivalent performance from Gary Cole as MacDonald.

I wonder if Morris felt more at ease in writing that book, pursuing one compelling anecdote, than grappling with Rumsfeld’s cloudy infinity of possibilities. A Wilderness of Error persuades me that MacDonald was wrongfully convicted after shoddy legal work on all sides. And yet I never lost the feeling (the prejudice or the storyline) that MacDonald had done the killings. But real murderers deserve a fair trial as much as the innocent. The book works so well because Morris has a literary mind and an instinct for outrage. It did not sell very well, perhaps because so many people regarded the MacDonald case as settled.

The Thin Blue Line had more impact on legal history, but such a response is rare and likely due to timing and the scent of melodrama in the air. “Documentary” tends to affix itself to notable or scandalous cases, and those are easily converted into movies of the month. One lesson to be drawn from both The Fog of War and The Unknown Known is that the best use of documentary might be close observation of the decision-making process at every level. But our deciders have learned the same lesson. The Nixon sound tapes were where vanity met self-betrayal, and it’s not likely to happen again. It is far more likely that the authorities are already recording us trying to track them. We call this surveillance, and as a technology it is never as smart and witty as Errol Morris’s cross-examinations. But still it is a suffocation of incisive knowledge, and Rumsfeld’s banal speculations of philosophy are made for that gaseous dead-end.

You may respond to this pessimism by wanting to send Frederick Wiseman or Ken Burns into the cockpit and have them record a million hours of subterfuge. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Burns is ushered in by corporate sponsorship because he is a natural booster, a publicist of Americana, and a man whose boyish decency begins to seem stilted. Wiseman, on the other hand, promises to record but not to interfere, so an approach that began with important institutions has shrunk into endless scrutiny of the documentary navel. It has been a long time since a Wiseman film upset people, and we are still waiting for Burns to get to that stage. Errol Morris is uncertain, uneasy, a bit of a stylistic jitterbug, yet he has the appealing outrage of a public defender who suspects wrongdoing.

I do not want to suggest that “documentary” is without utility, or entertainment value. Think of Grizzly Man or The Sorrow and the Pity. The Fog of War showed how a man discovered his own ruined decency in contemplating his past. But most documentaries preach to the saved and let them think that there is a safeguarding process at work in mediating public and private affairs. That is not so. The chances of documentary getting at crimes and follies in government in time to do something about them are diminishing. Perhaps, once upon a time, two reporters from a 1930s movie unearthed the iniquity of Watergate. The peril in trusting that model was always a disaster in waiting. Nearly forty years later, we have seen the subsiding technology of newspapers bury the force of print media, so that it is secondary to the jarring acuteness of WikiLeaks. But already one can feel “security” adjusting itself and preparing to deny and defile freelancers. Assange and Manning are not “like us”: their courage or disagreement will be depicted as un-American.

“Documentary” is one of the fallacies of the modern age. Yes, the movie audience will say that many of the best films are docs, so let there be more. They are good for us. But any documentarian will tell you that their work relies on funding, access, and keeping their noses clean. It is actually more likely now that fiction will stick its finger in raw wounds. If you want a thorough exploration of any topic, go for a book, or several books. Our war machine long ago got a grasp on controlling combat footage fit for the public. A few cell phones in Abu Ghraib broke free of that control, but such errors will be contained. Meanwhile “documentary” is a word that needs to go alongside “justice” (they both fascinate Errol Morris) in that you can get what you pay for, what you are determined to obtain through due process, and what the system’s control of surveillance and “security” will allow us. But the system is learning to be more sophisticated every year, which is more than you can say for our free society. Time may reveal that Donald Rumsfeld’s great contribution to discourse was to make the “unknown” sacrosanct. 

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Thames & Hudson).