“I’ve interviewed a lot of nasty characters over the years,” says a cheerful Errol Morris over lunch on a bright Los Angeles day. “I’m a connoisseur of bullshit.” He’s sampled some of the finest: Holocaust deniers, murderers swearing their innocence, a beauty queen who claims she only kidnapped and raped that Mormon missionary because they were in love.
Savoring bullshit — especially first-class bullshit, like that from Iraq War spinmeister Donald Rumsfeld, the star of Morris’s new documentary, The Unknown Known — isn’t about swatting down Rumsfeld’s half-truths and evasions. Others have mission accomplished that. Morris lets Rumsfeld bluster on, listening for an answer to the question that’s obsessed his entire filmmaking career: When does a liar get so good at deception that he even convinces himself?
Morris allows his subjects to be heard. Before his patient Interrotron, the device that lets interviewer and subject look into each other’s faces rather than at a camera lens, The Thin Blue Line‘s David Harris and The Fog of War‘s Robert McNamara cracked open and told the audience what we — not Morris, necessarily — wanted them to confess: Yes, I killed that cop; yes, I behaved like a war criminal.
“I think there’s an expectation of an ‘aha!’ moment,” says Morris, a moment of “showing the cloven hoof.” Between that and Morris’s liberal politics, it’s hard not to wonder why Rumsfeld would agree to an interview in the same room where Morris questioned Abu Ghraib’s cardboard villain, Lynndie England. Why give the filmmaker unprecedented access to the over 20,000 memos written during his five-year stint in the George W. Bush administration? For one of two reasons: Either Rumsfeld is convinced he did the right thing, or he’s convinced he can convince us that he did.
The two-time secretary of defense had already racked up practice besting the press at hundreds of live conferences. After watching their first two days of footage, Rumsfeld told Morris the only thing he wished he could change was his tie. Plus, it’s only been three and a half years, not 30, since American troops came home from his foreign war. When Morris asks if the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, Rumsfeld confidently replies, “Time will tell.”
“Yeah, you wait for a hundred trillion years and at some point, if there is still life on the planet, somebody might come up with a justification for what you’ve done,” laughs Morris. “It’s almost as if in every answer there’s a kind of parenthetical ‘fuck you.'”
To his credit, Morris stayed civil, though he admits he found the 33-hour interview “endlessly frustrating.” With the country still paying for the squandered $2 trillion, not to mention the 120,000 lives, many critics wish The Known Unknown jabbed Rumsfeld harder. But Morris wanted to make a portrait, not a prosecution. There’s no point in telling a monster he did a bad thing. Instead, Morris asks us to study what this monster sounds like so we’ll recognize the next one.
“People insist on seeing as it as a kind of adversarial, gladiatorial event that I lose,” says Morris. “Honest to god, I never saw it that way.”
But Rumsfeld certainly did. When the secretary dickers with the director over the definition of “torture memos,” he scratches a point on an imaginary blackboard and grins, “I’ll chalk that one up.”
Morris considered emphasizing the still-feisty 81-year-old’s competitive streak by including Rumsfeld’s Princeton wrestling career, which almost reached the 1952 Olympics. “He specialized in something called the Fireman’s Carry, where he would pick up his opponent, slam them into the mat, and pin ’em.” Ultimately, he left that out, too. With Mr. Death, Morris’s documentary on Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter, he’d been forced to edit in Jewish activists who assured the audience that Leuchter was wrong. An earlier version in which he’d simply let Leuchter speak angered people, who then accused Morris, a Jewish kid from New York, of being an anti-Semite. Having to underscore the obvious soured him on the film. This time, he wanted to let the words stand on their own, leaving the audience to wrestle with Rumsfeld’s slippery logic.
Rumsfeld liked The Unknown Known, at least “until I started talking about it,” says Morris. On his TV show the night before, Bill Maher had argued that Rumsfeld showed humility in the film, a conclusion the director finds mystifying. “Maybe [Maher’s] just being a contrarian for the sake of it,” Morris muses. “I like the film; I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done on self-deception,” he insists. “But I worry about my art, whether my art makes sense.”
“I could give up the interviewing thing. I’m tired of it, I really am tired of it,” says Morris, as though suddenly wearied by thinking about his bizarre showdown with Maher. “I’m not so tired of it that I’d never do it again, since a good part of my income depends on my ability to interview people. But I’m not sure I know how to do it anymore.” Has the confessional culture of social media changed the way people talk to a camera? Have public figures gotten too slick? Morris considers the changing seas. Then he shakes off his momentary gloom and smiles.
“Maybe I should interview Justin Bieber,” he jokes. “The only problem is, my interest in interviewing Justin Bieber is not great, I have to blushingly confess.”