In 2003 Errol Morris made The Fog of War, an extraordinary portrait of Robert S McNamara, who served as US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. That film, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary, was based on over 20 hours of interviews that Morris conducted with McNamara. Now he has made a sequel of sorts, The Unknown Known, which focuses on Donald Rumsfeld’s time as Secretary of Defense during the Iraq War. It is, in Morris’s words, “history from the inside-out”—an investigation of the way Rumsfeld sees himself and the chain of events that led to the Iraq war. I sat down with Morris to discuss why Rumsfeld agreed to make the movie, whether he is a “true believer” and his similarity to Humpty Dumpty and the Jabberwock.
What attracted you to making a film about Donald Rumsfeld, rather than other members of the Bush administration?
Part of the attraction was the salt and pepper shaker idea. Two disastrous wars, two secretaries of defense, separated by 40 years, more or less. I don’t think there was anything more than that. Two individuals who, for better or worse, were the popular faces of these wars—to the extent that you still hear Vietnam referred to as “McNamara’s war,” as if it represented primarily his policies and not Johnson’s, something by the way that I do not believe.
In his unwillingness to admit any error, Rumsfeld reminded me less of McNamara than Fred Leuchter, the execution technician and Holocaust denier who is the main character in your film Mr Death.
McNamara is unlike many of my characters: more self-aware, more guilt-ridden, more despairing. Fred is absolutely convinced of his own rectitude. He has no doubt that what he believes is the truth. He seems to have this interest in empiricism, paying lip-service to evidence, when the reality of it is something very close to the opposite. It’s evidence merely serving to justify prior belief.