Ten years ago, filmmaker Errol Morris sat down to interview Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who’d molded the country’s Vietnam War policies in the 1960s, for the Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War. McNamara, one of the “best and brightest” minds from the Kennedy Administration, had come to regret some of his decisions, and his expansive conversation with Morris, conducted through an Interrotron camera that allows the subject to look directly into the eyes of the audience, became a cautionary tale at a time when the country was revving up its war machine to take down Saddam Hussein in Iraq following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
One of the primary architects of that 2003 military campaign was Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had been the youngest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history when he held the position under Gerald Ford in the 1970s, and he became the oldest Secretary when he joined George W. Bush’s cabinet in 2001. Rumsfeld was formidable, intimidating, and imperious, and his press conferences were grand theater in which he made immediately infamous statements like, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” and, in reference to the existence of Iraqi WMDs, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.”
Especially when the Iraqi War got ugly — “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld said — and photos of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib were splashed on front pages around the world in 2004, Rumsfeld became the face of America’s controversial policies in the Middle East. He resigned in 2006, but he remains unwavering in his beliefs that the government did what it needed to do. There is no fog in Rumsfeld’s war.
Morris was surprised when Rumsfeld agreed to speak with him at all and even more surprised when he sat for 33 hours of on-camera interviews over the course of a year. The filmmaker calls those exchanges “one of the most difficult series of interviews that I’ve ever done.”
Morris spoke to EW at the Toronto Film Festival, where The Unknown Known screened.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does one begin to court Donald Rumsfield for a project like this? Not why, but how?
ERROL MORRIS: I wrote him a letter. I’d become aware of all of his memos — called yellow perils in the Ford Administration, snowflakes during the Bush Administration. And the idea of all these memos fascinated me. I contacted his attorney slash agent, Bob Barnett — he’s legendary. He sells most of these huge inside-the-beltway books. Bob Barnett told me, “Well, he’s never going to talk to you.” And I asked, “Well, will you forward a letter and a copy of The Fog of War?” He said he would. In the letter, I explicitly told Don Rumsfeld that I was not envisioning a Fog of War 2. I felt: different men, different set of historical circumstances, different issues. So I met with him in his offices — which was one of the more extraordinary events for me. You know, Rumsfeld coming to the door, introducing himself, saying, “Don Rumsfeld.”
Did you get the impression he watched Fog of War?
Whether he watched it in its entirety, I don’t know. But he said he didn’t like it. He said that guy [McNamara] has nothing to apologize for.
When you first met Rumsfeld, did you get the impression there was a certain amount of performance in his being ‘Rumsfeld’?
It’s one of the great mysteries, not just of Don Rumsfeld but of all of us. To what extent are our lives performance? Are we sincere? I think a lot of people would like to believe that he’s really truly insincere. That he is just a consummate performer and liar. That’s a received view among many, and he’s a person hated, in truth. He’s hated by the Left. He’s hated by the Right. He’s probably hated by the Middle, for all I know.
How did that first meeting go?
He was very, very friendly to me — and has been very friendly to me, through all of this. He showed me various things in the office, various artifacts. Copies of the election ballots from Afghanistan; a crumpled piece of metal, which was a piece of an anti-ballistic missile missile — saying, “Who says you can’t shoot down a missile with a missile.” Then he invited me — this was the oddest and most interesting part of that meeting — he invited me to sit in his conference room while he was doing phoners for his [memoir, Known and Unknown] with reporters. It seemed odd because, yes, I’m asking him for an interview, but I’m now all of a sudden sitting next to him with a cup of coffee and listening to him being interviewed by other reporters. And I found it really really interesting.
How was it revealing?
It was revealing about him and the whole process of journalism and reporting. The reporters all asked the same questions. And he gave the same answers, almost like someone was pushing a button in a vending machine. And the questions you can even imagine. I bet if I asked you to imagine what those questions were, you would nail it. It reinforced this idea that this is not what I should do. This is not the way to produce something different or new. Also, I had this crazy idea, which was taking one person and building a story around them. I sometimes say that art for me is you set up a system of arbitrary rules and then follow them slavishly. So you exclude everybody else, and instead of a film like, for example, the Cheney film that was recently made—
R.J. Cutler’s film.
R.J. Cutler’s film, which is a really interesting, really powerful, but not atypical film, where you have a brief interview with Cheney, and you interview a good number of other people about Cheney. There are some powerful moments in that film, but what I’m interested is the inside-out. I’m not interested in what X or Y or Z thinks about Don Rumsfeld. I’m interested in what Don Rumsfeld thinks about Don Rumsfeld. I’m interested in how he sees himself and what he did. And the memos are a way in. I thought this was fantastic: he will read his actual memos. I’m sure there are a lot of memos that are still classified, but we saw a lot of memos and we were allowed to pick and choose. He was willing, more or less, to read anything, as long as he had written it.
In the film, you eventually ask him point blank — and he kind of demurs — but did you ever get a sense of what he was hoping to get out of this?
I think people need to tell their life story to another person. They need to give an accounting of themselves. Maybe it’s some very basic human need. Someone said to me — and I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I liked hearing it — that he was obviously engaged by me.
That makes some sense because he’d just published a book and I’m sure he had plenty of platforms or outlets to tell his story, like an hour on 60 Minutes. He chose you. You made some impression.
Yeah, I think so. I told him in the first meeting that we shouldn’t even talk about a contract. What I wanted to do, I wanted to spend two days interviewing him — as many hours as he wanted to give me. I would edit it. I would show it to him. If he wanted to proceed, we’d sign a contract. If he wanted to stop, we could stop and that material would never see the light of day. And it was a gentleman’s agreement that I would’ve honored. And he came up to Boston. We shoot two days of interviews. I edited them. I showed it to him. He called me to talk about the material that I had sent to him. He said, “You know, I have a serious problem with this material.” I said, “Oh.” He said, “I just don’t like that tie I was wearing. Could we change it?”
He was being serious?
I don’t know. I don’t really know.
After the Toronto screening, you told the audience that he ultimately saw four versions of the film, and true to his habits, he had notes for you.
Were his notes more about the content of the footage or your presentation?
Both, but I would say by and large they were about the content of the footage. Sometimes he just didn’t like the kinds of imagery that I used or the music that I used. But often they were specific complaints about how I had represented various historical facts. He wanted me to state somewhere in the movie that the early [Iraq] policies of the Bush Administration were no different from Clinton’s policies. Well, I do not believe this is true and I explained to him why I didn’t believe it was true. You see, part of the danger if you don’t know this history well, is perhaps many of these things will slide past you. [In a memo] he says that this policy of containment — the no-fly zones — isn’t working. He says that we tried to keep [Saddam Hussein] in the box; he’s crawled some distance out of the box. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to confront a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons, et cetera, et cetera. He’s really dramatic. This is a direct reference to Clinton’s policies and Clinton’s policies not working and the necessity to do something different. So I said, in good conscience, “I can’t do that. Your memo itself states that this is different than what went before, that those policies were ineffective, weren’t working and had to be changed.” So I left it more or less the way it was. In some instances, I tried to make changes — not slavishly, but because I felt it was the correct or the right thing to do. In other instances, I did not. Because I think that some of these memos are so revealing, so unbelievably fascinating, and I would have to say disturbing.
After the screening the other night, I almost got the impression that you still found Rumsfeld’s semantic contradictions and wordplay irritating.
I would put it differently. There’s something sort of strange about a world of homilies and rules, all based on weird contradictions. In the very beginning of the film, he says, “Preparing for war can be a cause of war… but failure to prepare for war can also be a cause for war.” And I say to him, “But you know from that, you can just prove anything, you can justify everything.” I feel I’ve been really hard on Rumsfeld in the interviews that I’ve given, but I am appreciative that he did this with me and find him endlessly fascinating. I took note of when he corrects me in the movie, when I said, “Why do you…” He’s absolute right. It is about us, whether we want to own him or disown him, agree with him ideologically or disagree with him ideologically, he’s part of our country and he’s part of our heritage and part of who we are at this juncture in history.
…and what our government is still doing.
And what our government is still doing. We live in a Rumsfeld world.