VICE Podcast: Errol Morris

This week, Reihan Salam sits down with filmmaker Errol Morris to discuss his latest film, The Unknown Known, a portrait of one of the leading architects of the Iraq War—Donald Rumsfeld.

For instance, Morris asks Rumsfeld about his memos regarding what is permissible and what is not permissible in the interrogation of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. There follows from Rumsfeld an almost jovial listing of the two columns: what is OK and what is not OK. Meanwhile, images of beaten and hooded Abu Ghraib prisoners flood the screen, and we see key words from Rumsfeld’s memos—“water-boarding,” “sleep deprivation,” “torture”—sliding and spinning almost ballet-like into a deep black pit, where they disappear. Unlike McNamara, who clearly feels a burden, Rumsfeld seems unable or unwilling to get beyond words, concepts—abstractions. The viewer gets the feeling that Rumsfeld merely watched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as a spectator. He even seems amused by his discussion with Morris… There is one supremely appropriate English-language term for the Rumsfeld who emerges in The Unknown Known—a term that has recently been imported into serious philosophical discussion, possibly for the first time, in an influential 2005 monograph by the Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. The term is “bullshit,” and practitioners of this dark art are bullshit artists (or bullshitters). According to Frankfurt, “The bullshitter is neither on the side of the true or the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all. … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Regrettably, McNamara lied at times when he was in office. But he was not a bullshitter, not like Rumsfeld.
“The Unknown Known”: Donald Rumsfeld throws his hands in the air like he just doesn’t care

The Unknown Known feels like a movie that was frustrating to make, and not just because we can repeatedly hear director Errol Morris’s exasperated exclamations from behind the camera.

It’s the respected documentarian’s second long-form engagement with a former defense secretary who helped lead America into a highly dubious war—the first being 2003′s lauded The Fog of War, a feature-length conversation with Robert McNamara (1916-2009), who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

McNamara was a more satisfying subject insofar as his comments were candid and probing, illuminating the logic and circumstances that drew the U.S. into the tragic quagmire of the Vietnam War. Rumsfeld is much more slippery, the film’s title referring to the angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin rationale the Secretary offered for invading Iraq in 2003.

Rumsfeld tells Morris that he doesn’t know why, in retirement, the famously hawkish official chose to subject himself to an extended interview by a famously liberal filmmaker. Morris, though, hints at an answer both in his film and in a series of op-eds, based on the film, published in the New York Times: Rumsfeld loves engaging with the press.

It’s not just a historical accident that Rumsfeld is responsible for more iconic sound bites than possibly any other cabinet official in history; he manifestly thrives on the thrust-and-parry of the press conference. When faced with pointed questions, Rumsfeld tends to back out as though didactically providing context, but his folksy aphorisms tend to back so cosmically far out that he’s hardly talking about anything at all.

The film’s title is inspired by one of the most famous Rumsfeld-isms: “There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” The only missing element there is the unknown known; logically, that would be something we don’t know that we know, but which Rumsfeld now muses might refer to something we think we know but don’t actually know.

Such as, say, Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction? No, Rumsfeld won’t go there. He gives Morris the same runaround he gave the White House press corps a decade ago: we just didn’t know. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is another quasi-philosophical Rumsfeldism that the ex-official continues to lean on: we didn’t know for certain that Iraq did not have WMD, so obviously we had an imperative to remove any possibility of a doubt, if necessary by force.

The most damning aspect of Morris’s film is the counterposing of Rumsfeld’s recent interviews with footage of the then-Secretary’s wartime press conferences. Rumsfeld would apparently like to have us believe that the Bush Administration was consistently upfront about such details as the lack of association between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, but Morris quickly turns back the clock to demonstrate how Rumsfeld led the press corps on a series of lighting-quick hops from “we don’t know whether Saddam has WMD” to “we can’t see the WMD, but we know Saddam wants them” to “we know Saddam has WMD, we just can’t see them.”

Midway through The Unknown Known, Morris takes a historical detour to walk us through Rumsfeld’s long career in public service; his stints under Presidents Ford (1975-1977) and George W. Bush (2001-2006) give him the status of having been both the youngest and oldest person ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. Morris implies that Rumsfeld is a canny operator, suggesting that his success in public service has been more a matter of political savvy than military expertise; Rumsfeld, though, holds that his career has followed the dictates of logic and circumstances.

When Morris points out that Shakespeare saw all of human behavior as being motivated by emotions like lust, pride, and jealousy, then asks whether Shakespeare was wrong, Rumsfeld blithely replies that Shakespeare may have been right about people in the 15th century—but obviously, he posits, circumstances have changed.

In a film that’s largely about Rumsfeld’s role in the Iraq War, the most telling among the 81-year-old ex-official’s comments refer to earlier conflicts with Vietnam and with Russia.

Asked by Morris if there are any lessons we can take from the failure of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld replies, “Well, one would hope that most things that happen in life prove to be lessons. Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t. If that’s a lesson, yes, it’s a lesson.”

Some things work out, some things don’t. If it’s impossible to know ahead of time what will work out and what won’t—due to the unknown unknowns, the unknown knowns, and all that—then how is one to decide what course of action to take when lives are on the line?

It’s with respect to this question that Morris unveils another telling Rumsfeld comment, from a 1989 televised panel discussion. Arguing that credit for the end of the Cold War properly belongs neither to Gorbachev nor to Reagan but to America’s decades-long buildup of military might.

“We need to understand how we got to where we are,” says Rumsfeld, chopping his hand up and down to emphasize his point, “because going forward, we’re going to have to make a judgment as to what role our country ought to play, and a passive role would be terribly dangerous. Who do we want to provide leadership in the world? Somebody else?”

Jay Gabler

Donald Rumsfeld says a trained ape can do a better job than Obama

Donald Rumsfeld says a trained ape can do a better job than Obama

[jwplayer mediaid=“2717”]

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris appears on Democracy Now to discuss his new film, “The Unknown Known,” based on 33 hours of interviews with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld suggests that the Obama administration is incompetent and says a trained ape could do a better job.

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Putting this one on the queue. 

The title of Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known is taken from a Donald Rumsfeld quote on intelligence. To paraphrase: there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. The latter, he explains, are “failures of imagination” which allowed 9/11 to occur under his watch. A proactive approach followed, resulting in two costly wars, a slew of horror stories, and far too many unknown knowns: things we thought we knew, but didn’t. (via Cinema Review: The Unknown Known | Under the Radar - Music Magazine)

for the ghosts and the ghosted (poem for killjoys with heavy hearts)

dirt and dog food fills the stomaches of the homesick and misunderstood,
zipped up in catastrophe with tragic backstory wrapped around our necks.
lungs filled to the brim with the smog and smoke of a city unloved,
car horns and wind machines and all of the rest line the streets.
our hands shake with hesitation and our voices waver with the fear of the unknown.
but the known is so much more frightening.
when our friends are flies dropping out of the air and our families are long but a memory,
our hearts thump with each bump in the night.
but in the end,
we will lift our glasses to another day survived and we will tip our hats to another moment salvaged.
our leather is tight but our chests are tighter.
we keep our guns close but eachother closer.
because when the daylight curtains close and the desert stars kiss our foreheads,
we will laugh until the numbness fades
and we will cry until the numbness settles back in.
we will do as the tumble weeds.
we will run.


really good score on this documentary


Chef (★★☆☆☆)
Basically a sitcom pilot stretched to roughly two hours, Chef is not a world-beating film, but still, it’s hard to really get worked up enough to truly hate it. Jon Favreau’s Carl quits his unfulfilling job as executive chef to start up a travelling cross-country  Cuban cuisine food truck with his young son (Emjay Anthony), his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a co-worker (Jon Leguizamo)… that’s about it really. It’s as low-stakes and feel-good as possible, with no real conflict other than the reconnection of a fractured family. Despite a whiff of self-satisfaction and a hint of vanity project mood around the sides of this dish, its cast is just too likeable to deserve much ire. The big-name cameos from Robert Downey Jr, Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson barely manage to instil some glamour to proceedings, but it’s not enough to make Chef anything approaching truly worthwhile.

Nurse 3D (★☆☆☆☆)
How does Paz De La Huerta keep getting work? Her strung-out, dead-behind-the-eyes style was perfect for the weirdness of Enter The Void, and it worked to some degree in Boardwalk Empire, but jeez… she ain’t cut out for this acting lark. There’s a distinction between the camp, enjoyable trash (that of, say, John Waters) and truly worthless bilge, and whilst attempting to be the former, Nurse 3D ends up firmly entrenched in the latter. Seemingly cobbled together from the discarded scripts of unmade softcore porn and horror films, Nurse is the murky, non-Tarantino endorsed side of exploitation and grindhouse cinema, a shameless clone of Single White Female with gratuitous gore and nudity stapled to it, notable only for De La Huerta’s godawful performance and appearances from Katrina Bowden (30 Rock), Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) and Corbin Bleu (High School Musical).

The Unknown Known (★★★☆☆)
Named after its subject’s infamous quote about what is and isn’t known in the world of military intelligence, The Unknown Known ostensibly is a look into Donald Rumsfeld’s time serving in the US government under four different presidents. Really it comes off as an exercise in crafting the perfect soundbite. Coming seven years after Rumsfeld finally left office, it’s strange to see an exploration into a man’s career as his actions and policies still influence the political world of today. Perhaps it’s because of this short window of time that Rumsfeld almost dances around Errol Morris’ questioning and slips away from both blame and a firm stance; it certainly doesn’t help that initially Morris’ interrogation is pretty soft and rarely presses the former Secretary Of Defense for a concrete answer or leads him back from his rehearsed soundbites. It’s rather chilling seeing a man who many consider a war criminal acting so avuncular and, well, human, especially as the film veers a little too close to a PR exercise at points. However, it’s a crafty method from Morris, allowing Rumsfeld to hoist himself by his own petard; contrasting between present recollections with historical evidence, the director rips away big chunks his subject’s slimy facade. It may not be the grilling the left would like to give Rumsfeld, but it’s a fascinating and occasionally enligtening insight into some dark places.

Hellion (★★☆☆☆)
A loosely-sewn American kitchen sink indie drama, Hellion is the kind of film which has been made a millions times over to the point where you suspect there’s a production line rolling them out every couple of months. As such, there’s very little originality in the tale of Hollis (Aaron Paul), a deadbeat widower and dad of two unruly sons in dire circumstances. Despite Paul proving his time as Jesse Pinkman wasn’t a fluke or a one-off, and director Kat Candler’s execution of the story pointing toward a promising future, Hellion is disappointingly generic. It stands in the shadow of the much-loved Mud, but doesn’t say much new about  themes of parenthood, socioeconomic depression and youthful masculinity, and the situations its characters are placed in just get more and more miserable as the film mopes to its inevitable conclusion.

Life Itself (★★★★☆)
Opening with a quote from its subject, possibly the world’s most famous film critic, about cinema being an empathy machine, Life Itself is not a canonising squeaky clean tribute, but an honest, intimate and utterly compelling warts-and-all look at the life and death of Roger Ebert. At times tender, heartbreaking and hilarious, this documentary may occasionally fall into the trap merely retelling events in a linear fashion, but come the end credits you’ll either be smiling a warm smile or welling up. No matter your knowledge of Ebert’s work, you’ll come away feeling like you knew the man (and in my case, really wanting to up my writing game). Featuring talking heads from Ebert’s family and friends, big name directors such as Scorsese and Herzog, fellow critics, and smaller filmmakers he championed, Life Itself is the defining portrait of a man who’s passion, drive, positivity and perseverance made him an icon of cinema, an inspiration to writers and a friend of film lovers the world over. Two thumbs up.

Mediocre horror will be the death of me. In a year when we’ve had brilliant dalliances with the genre such as Meet Me There and Coherence, for something as bland and throwaway as Ouija to come along and leap to the top of the US box office is offensive. Never mind that the mechanics behind ouija boards have long since been thoroughly debunked, this is an utterly derivative compilation of obvious plot points and barely earned jump scares, poorly conceived and directed. Not even Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke can save Ouija from fading from memory before the final credits have started rolling.