Calum Marsh, from Esquire‘s Political Blog:
… In his more than thirty-five years as a documentarian, Errol Morris has profiled a lot of delusional people: Holocaust deniers, unpunished murderers, serial killer obsessives. None are as oblivious to their own mistakes as Donald Rumsfeld proves to be in this film. The Unknown Known has been criticized in some quarters for going too easy on its subject, but the truth is that Morris simply takes a more subtle approach. He doesn’t ridicule or undermine Rumsfeld; he doesn’t resort to rhetorical shortcuts or attempt to trick him into the corner of a lie. He doesn’t need to. It’s an axiom of literary criticism that the most damning evidence is always direct quotation. Morris does just that: He hangs Rumsfeld with his own words.
We had the chance to catch up with Morris in the lead-up to The Unknown Known’s release this week to talk politics, language, and why some critics have misunderstood the film…
Esquire: One of the things I find fascinating about the film is that it’s neither a portrait of a master manipulator nor an exposé of somebody who is lying, but rather a profile of a person so impressed by his own aphorisms and slogans that they’re enough for him. He’s not hiding the truth, because he doesn’t have anything to hide.
EMorris: More or less, yes. There’s that smile, throughout the movie—to me it’s that look of supreme self-satisfaction. Look what I just said. I’m the cat who’s just swallowed the canary. I’m so smart, I’m so clever. And yet when you look at these principles—at times I call them Chinese fortune cookie philosophies—they quickly devolve into nonsense talk….
ESQ: When he’s being vague or evasive, is he deliberately trying to hide something, or is that kind of nonsense sincerely all he can give?
EMorris: Again you’ve gone to the heart of the movie. I don’t know whether it’s ever possible to pin him down in that regard. My own thought is that there’s nothing there—that in the end all you’re left with is the smile…
I went to Google to try and track down some of the 2003/4 conservative semi-erotica written about Rumsfeld (“No doubt about it, Don Rumsfeld is a stud muffin”), and got distracted by the NYTimes review (with video!) of Morris’ film:
…Clips from press briefings during the Iraq war illustrate his penchant for using semantics as a weapon, one he wields with undiminished glee against Mr. Morris. When the filmmaker presses him on the “torture memos” authorizing harsh treatment of suspected terrorists, Mr. Rumsfeld rephrases the question in such a way as to minimize any moral stigma and also any hint of his own responsibility. “Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did,” he says, breaking into a smile and raising a finger of triumph. “I’ll chalk that one up.”…
Once again, the Bush Regency motto: “We create our own reality.”
When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the McKinley-era explanations of why America “needed” to annex the Philippines — for the “little brown brothers”‘s own good, as a bulwark against those other empires, because Manifest Destiny required that “we” take up our rightful place as The One True Christian Nation. But those Mark-I robber barons at least believed they were called upon to make a serious argument (even if they didn’t believe what they were arguing). The Cheney Crime Syndicate didn’t even bother with the argument part — just a blizzard of ‘snowflake’ Rumsfeld memos and a steady pipeline of Rove-to-Fox-News bullshit.