No documentarian has been as influential as Errol Morris over the past thirty years, not Ken Burns, not Werner Herzog. Morris' technique and his re-enactments have been copied over and over, but there's nothing like the real thing. There's a heaviness to an Errol Morris film that's palpable. His work is unusually original and frequently profound.
The director has achieved much in his time behind the lens and earned a reputation for emotional interviews that reveal more about the subject than they might want. But then Morris met Donald Rumsfeld. In his new film, The Unknown Known, Morris interrogates the former Secretary of Defense about his life and, especially, his role in the Iraq War. But Rumsfeld reveals little, showing the same defiant personality that marked his time in the George W. Bush administration.
Obviously, this kind of evasion must have been frustrating for Morris so we were excited to speak with him about the film. Our interview was far-ranging and we found Morris to be brutally honest about how The Unknown Known turned out and about the man he couldn't quite crack. Here are the twelve best quotes Morris gave us (with context added where needed).
1. "I think I expected something different. It's not as though I expected him to say the invasion of Iraq was wrong, or that his policies were wrong, I did not expect that. But if you're asking me, and you are asking me, if I expected answers, for example: 'What did you learn from the Vietnam war?' 'Some things work out, some things don't.' That level of non-insight—no, I did not expect that. I would have to say I'm shocked by him." (In response to the question: "Did you get what you expected out of this interview?")
2. "I think there are times I don't think he's even aware he's lying. There are moments in the film which are really, really, really puzzling."
3. "He's a man who believes whatever is convenient for him to believe."
4. "I think, yes. He's the 'unknown known'." (In response to the question: "Was the title of the film meant as an inside joke between you and the audience?")
5. "I was worn out by this. It's a frustrating interview. (But) I do believe that I captured something of who he is in this movie."
6. "There's been so much activity on my Twitter page with the opening of the movie, and someone said he's become the 'Secretary of Self-Defense' since his retirement."
7. "I suppose I could say that all of this has made me angry. If I wasn't angry to start off with it's made me angrier. On one hand, Rumsfeld was always cordial, cooperative, he gave me access to these memos, he flew to Boston repeatedly to be interviewed. And yet, the end result of these interviews is something really, really infuriating and disturbing. I would call it a cluelessness."
8. "He says that he hated it, but that doesn't mean he saw it. I've talked to a number of people who're convinced that Rumsfeld's never seen a single movie. Which I would not find hard to believe." (In response to the question: "Do you know if Rumsfeld saw The Fog of War?" (Morris' Oscar-winning film that's very similar.)
9. "I think it's more related to Tabloid. It's a story about a protagonist who's utterly clueless about themselves, utterly self-deceived. It's a portrait of an incredible operator, incredibly skillful at maneuvering his way through government, but you don't know what else is there, whether it's all just performance. You don't know. My suspicion is there isn't very much there."
10. "Some people have described this to me as the real House of Cards and I wouldn't object. Power for it's own sake, devoid of goals, principles, ideas."
11. "Well, is it a lie? There's another question for you. Because, does he even know that he's lying? Does he even know that I've just contradicted him? Does he even know anything? The shocking thing when he said he didn't read the torture memos is not that he's lying, it's that he's probably telling the truth! He didn't even read the Haynes report, I believe, even though he annotated it with his written comment: 'I stand for hours.'" When he's reading the Haynes report in my studio he stops himself and says, 'Good grief that's a pile of stuff.' Well, dude, did you ever read it?! He's shocked by nudity—nudity at Abu Ghraib, stress positions, hooding, nudity at Abu Ghraib? Dude those are in the Haynes Memo! You signed off on all of that stuff! Those are your policies!" (In response to our comment that Morris catches Rumsfeld in a lie during a sequence discussing the Schlesinger Report.)
12. "It's actually one of the most unbelievable experiences I will ever have."
You can listen to the full interview here: