Filmmaker Errol Morris

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The award-winning filmmaker previews his documentary, The Unknown Known, about Donald Rumsfeld, one of the principal architects of the Iraq War.

"One-of-a-kind" is often used to describe documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. His breakthrough effort was 1988's The Thin Blue Line, a film that helped set an innocent man free, and his projects have repeatedly appeared on many "ten best" lists. He's won numerous awards, including an Oscar for best documentary feature (The Fog of War), and also been the subject of a full retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Morris has directed over 1,000 television commercials, as well as short films for charitable and political organizations such as Stand Up to Cancer and, in 2007, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Tavis: Academy Award winning documentarian Errol Morris has made a career of exposing the foibles of those in power, from his Oscar-winning film “The Fog of War,” which presented Robert McNamara’s mea culpa about his role in prolonging the Vietnam War, to Morris’ current documentary, “The Unknown Known,” which lets former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the Iraq war, of course, explain and defend his decisions.

“The Unknown Known” will be in select theaters next week, before airing on the History Channel. We start our conversation tonight first with a clip from “The Unknown Known.”


Tavis: Love that grin there at the end. So let me just ask you, because this was the first question that came to my mind when I saw that Rumsfeld had sat down for hours, 33 hours with you?

Errol Morris: Something like that.

Tavis: Something like 33 hours? My first question was why in the world, if you’re Donald Rumsfeld and you get a call from Errol Morris, and I say this with all due respect, why he would sit down with you.

Did he not see your McNamara work? It’s like back in the day when you saw Mike Wallace coming, you’d run the other direction. But what was in it for Rumsfeld?

Morris: Rumsfeld is a completely unreflective individual. I don’t think he thought about it –

Tavis: See what I mean? (Laughter)

Morris: I don’t think he thought about it one way or the other. Why not? Why not do another interview? He’s one a zillion of them.

Tavis: But 33 hours with your camera lens trained on him, making him justify, explain, rationalize, what he did, why he did it, what he wrote, and then get out of him that he would do it again.

I just don’t know what the – I mean, you and I are in the same business, we’re both media, we’re broadcast guys, but I just don’t, I still can’t understand – I’m glad he did it, because it’s revelatory in a lot of ways. But I’m just stuck on that one question. I don’t know what he thought was in it for him.

Morris: Well I asked him, “Why are you talking to me? Why you doing this?” His answer could be the answer to almost anything. It could be the answer to why went to war in Iraq. He says, “That’s a vicious question,” and then he says, “I’ll be darned if I know.”

Vanity, overwhelming self-confidence, an unshakeable belief in his own correctness, his own infallibility – your guess is as good as mine.

Tavis: As a filmmaker, what do you make of what you got of him on film? What’s your read of it?

Morris: He’ll say almost anything, he’ll contradict himself, he’ll say things that can be easily shown to be untrue, and yet he never seems to notice. He never seems to be bothered by anything. He just goes on and on and on, one of these crazy principles after another. The most disturbing of them – absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

Sounds good, maybe. It was used to explain why we haven’t heard from intelligent beings somewhere else in the universe. Well, just because we haven’t found direct evidence of their existence, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

But then Rumsfeld transplants this to WMD and Iraq – absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and it’s used as an excuse – what? To go to war.

A weapons inspector from the UN goes to Iraq, goes to a place where he thinks he’s going to find biological or chemical weapons, and he finds nothing. Now is that absence of evidence? I don’t think so.

Tavis: Let me go back to your phrase a moment ago, Errol, of, and I think you used the phrase “intelligent beings in the universe.” I say this not to demonize him, not to cast aspersion on him in any way, and I would never put myself out as the smartest, the most intelligent being in this universe. I’m nowhere near that. And yet when I watched this I kept coming back to the fact this is the guy who was in charge. This was the secretary of defense. I know how this Washington parlor game works is that once you get in the Washington glitterati –

Morris: You’re in the power mix.

Tavis: There you go, I like that. Once you get in that Washington power mix, you can bounce from one president’s administration to another. You can go from Ford, from Nixon and to Ford and to Bush and to Reagan. You can bounce around. I get that.

But I watched your piece and I was just dumbfounded that this is the guy who was in charge. Again, I’m not trying to demonize the guy, but I’m watching, like, and you were the one making the decisions? It just didn’t –

Morris: Rumsfeld is incredibly charming.

Tavis: That he is.

Morris: He’s well spoken, he’s convincing. He was the front man for the war. He was the guy who stood up in all of those Pentagon press conferences.

Tavis: Is that all it takes is to look good on camera and to be well spoken and charming and charismatic? Is that – that’s it? The qualifications to be defense secretary are, like, irrelevant? That’s all it takes?

Morris: I don’t know. To me it’s depressing, because I love this country and I would think that our democracy could and should produce more thoughtful people.

Tavis: I knew going into it that Rumsfeld and I didn’t agree on much of anything.

Morris: Not a surprise.

Tavis: Okay. Yeah, not a surprise to me, not a surprise to my viewers, not a surprise to you. Got it. All right. But I want to be open-minded, and I don’t have a monopoly on the truth, and I believe that there is the truth –

Morris: By the way, none of us do.

Tavis: Exactly. I believe there is the truth – I don’t think Donald Rumsfeld knows that though. I think there is the truth, and I think there’s the way to the truth, so I don’t have a monopoly on the journey or the destination. I got that.

But I’m watching your piece because I’m open to hearing his explanations, but that’s when I fall out of my seat.

Because when given the opportunity to explain what he did and why he did it and how he did it and the fact that he would do it again, I walk away thinking, again, I just, I feel worthless tonight and I feel tongue-tied, because I’m still, like, flabbergasted at what I saw. Or didn’t see, as it were.

Morris: It’s frustrating, it’s infuriating. Speaking as the man who spent these 30-plus hours with him, it’s exhausting. Trying to figure out what is going on inside of his head – could it be that a man so used to obfuscating, evading, misdirecting has just lost all purchase with reality? Is there anything real left?

I’m not so sure. That’s the mystery. If you think of this as a – sometimes I think of it as a horror movie, sometimes I think of it as a mystery, and the mystery still remains who is this man. What did he think he was doing?

Tavis: See, as wrong as Robert McNamara was, as wrong as he was, as many lives as were lost at his hand, over time, courtesy of your work, we get to see him come around. He does eventually rethink what he did, why he did it, how he did it. I don’t get the sense that Rumsfeld is ever going to have that moment. You think?

Morris: I think he will never have that moment.

Tavis: You don’t think he will?

Morris: No. Two really different individuals. They’re opposites, almost.

Tavis: What makes them so different?

Morris: One is reflective, one agonizes over the decisions that he made and the lives lost because of those decisions. The other is completely self-satisfied, delighted with himself, absolutely convinced of his own correctness –

Tavis: And would do it again.

Morris: – and would do it again. Who is deeply, deeply unreflective.

Tavis: So –

Morris: He sees the Iraq war as a success. The fact that we went to war under false pretenses –

Tavis: False premises, yeah.

Morris: – mm, still a good thing.

Tavis: How’s history going to regard him? Because again, now your work, what he says to you is a part of the historical record. How is history down the road – forget Errol Morris and Tavis Smiley. How is history going to regard Donald Rumsfeld?

Morris: Well look how we regard Vietnam. He was in the Oval Office when we pulled out of Saigon, people clambering onto the helicopters at the embassy. I asked him, “What’d you learn?”

He’s in the Oval Office; there he is with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. “What’d you learn?” His answer: “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.”

Today we look at Vietnam as unnecessary, a terrible, terrible mistake that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and millions of people in Southeast Asia. My guess? I don’t know how history is going to view any of us.

My guess is that we will see this recent episode in American history maybe not exactly the same way, but in a similar way.

Tavis: As hopelessly inarticulate as I have been tonight trying to express –

Morris: You’ve been fine.

Tavis: No, as inarticulate as I’ve been in trying to express what I saw when I saw Errol’s brilliant work, I do think it’s worth you seeing, and you determine whether or not you come away with the same blank stare that I did.

“The Unknown Known,” in theaters April 2nd in Los Angeles and New York, and then it rolls out across the country. I want to make sure I get a copy of this to put in my library.

Maybe in five years I will get what I didn’t get the first time I saw it. You did great work, though.

Morris: By the way, I hate to contradict you, but I think you did get it.

Tavis: Yeah, all right. If you say so. (Laughter)

Morris: Sir.

Tavis: Good to see you, Errol.

Morris: Good to see you.

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Last modified: March 27, 2014 at 5:52 pm