Errol Morris On The Value Of Just Listening

The Oscar-winning documentarian behind The Unknown Known muses on the bizarre beauty of letting your subject reveal himself in his own way, and the exasperation of Donald Rumsfeld’s “demonic…cluelessness.”


Every era gets the Errol Morris documentary it deserves. Or perhaps more to the point, every era gets the Secretary of Defense it deserves.


In the 1960s, that was Robert McNamara, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and played a singular role in escalating the Vietnam War. In 2003, Errol Morris earned an Oscar for making The Fog of War, in which he grilled McNamara on his political philosophy and his retrospective judgments of the choices made decades earlier. McNamara was shockingly candid and self-reflective. If he wasn’t quite apologetic then at least he laid bare his uncertainties. At a time when the country was newly at war with Iraq for dubious cause, Morris presented a complex portrait of the frailty of our leaders.

In the early 2000’s it was Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, who led us into war in Iraq because of fictitious weapons of mass destruction, and is the subject of Morris’s quasi follow-up, The Unknown Known. In it, Rumsfeld recites many of the tens of thousands of memos he wrote during his tenure. But frailty and uncertainty are not in his vocabulary.

Held up against The Fog of War, Morris’s new film was bound to disappoint some critics. Many early reviews suggested that he isn’t tough enough on his subject. Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy called the film “an unsuccessful attempt to get inside the head” of Rumsfeld. True, there’s no getting inside that man’s head, but there is value in observing the attempts to do so.

While it does not provide neat answers for those with a pressing agenda, The Unknown Known is incredibly revealing as a representation of power in the early 21st century–a chilling, even baffling, portrait of a man in deep denial of the consequences of his own actions.

Here, Morris discusses how he allows his subjects to reveal themselves.



When Morris first started out, he was planning to write a book on Ed Gein, the serial killer in Plainview, Wisconsin, and he was interviewing people connected to the man. “I was recording audio, I wasn’t filming, and I would play this game where I would try to see how long I could go in an interview without saying anything.” Morris recalls. “I was interested in this stream of consciousness narration. [I felt] that I was eliciting something.” He evolved a technique in these interviews–-he would walk in, the recorder would already be running, he’d put it down on the table in clear sight. “I would never say, ‘May I record?’ But the recorder was clearly visible.” He and his subject would start a conversation. Often the result was long stretches in which Morris’s voice was not heard at all.

This style became a kind of signature of Morris’s films. “There’s a piece of that sort of thing in my first movie Gates of Heaven, in which an old woman standing in a doorway gives this long stream of consciousness monologue. I’ve often thought that the strongest things I’ve done haven’t been in response to questions. Maybe I created this atmosphere where things happened.”

By “things happened,” Morris is referring to The Thin Blue Line, his 1988 film that overturned a conviction of a man who had been sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit.


Morris recounts how it played out: “What really broke the case, there were a number of things to be sure. It wasn’t so much [the real killer] David Harris’s confession to me. One of the eyewitnesses, Emily Miller, had taken a stand. She claimed that she had passed the suspect’s vehicle as the shooting was happening and that she could ID Randall Adams. Very near the end [of the interview] she tells me out of nowhere that she had failed to pick out Randall Adams in a police lineup. Now I know that she had testified at trial that she had, so I said, ‘How’d you fail to pick him?’ ‘I know because I failed to pick out the right person and he told me who the right person was.’ This was presented, not alone, but among other things, and it led to the conviction being overturned.

“I wasn’t trying to challenge her. I wasn’t adversarial, but it revealed a lot.”


Morris did his homework on the new film. He read, for instance, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger’s report investigating what happened at Abu Ghraib. It’s a report that Rumsfeld himself had commissioned. Rumsfeld even makes reference to it in dismissing the notion that any such abuse migrated from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld says there was no migration.


So, in the film, Morris reads from the document: “The augmented techniques for Guantanamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were neither limited nor safeguarded.” Rumsfeld’s response? “Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.”

“Imagine I had pushed back,” says Morris. “What if I had said, ‘But, sir, you said the opposite moments ago.’ The audience gets the pleasure of how he reacts to that but I hope they know that he said something that’s untrue. I’m not sure that forcing it gets us any further.”

Instead, you just see Rumsfeld sitting in silence, staring at the camera. Somehow that moment captures the essence of the man. “The whole movie is about what he knows and what he doesn’t know. The whole movie is about that question. Is he all pretend? Does he have any clue? Is this weird kind of performance art all he is?”


There’s a tendency in our culture to push back. Things have become so polarized that if one is interviewing someone whose views are on the other side of the divide there’s an expectation that you’ll make him eat his words. It’s what Sarah Palin loves to call “gotcha journalism.” But clearly that’s not Morris’s style.

“I take a middle road which is to point out to them and the audience that what they said is wrong, and then to move on. To confront them but not to confront them repeatedly.”



“The movie doesn’t make clear that [Rumsfeld] has given me access and is performing [his memos] for the camera. I love the movie, and here’s why I love it. It could be a weird Aesop’s fable, or whatever: The man who memorializes everything memorializes nothing in the process. The man who creates such a sea of words around him and thinks maybe he’s come close to it, obscures the world. In one of my less charitable moments I compared him to a squid leaving a trail of opaque ink in his wake. Those endless memos.

“The memos, the oral history, reveal hopefully–which I think they do–it’s not about endlessly pushing back, challenging, creating an adversarial relationship, it’s about slowly, in Rumsfeld’s own words and memos, revealing what we’re dealing with. Maybe [the critics] wanted in the end more of a Shakespearean character. The great Shakespearean villains always tell us how villainous they are. Iago tells us how he hates Othello and wants to fuck him over big time. But these villains are not those kinds of villains. Sure, there’s palace intrigue and ambition, insane jealousy and a will to power, but our modern villains seem to be demonic in their cluelessness.”

Morris goes on. “What a character Rumsfeld is. These are the people who get elevated to the top ranks of power. He complained he didn’t like the end of the movie, the pat on the back he gets from Bush as he’s shown the door leaving office. He wanted the heraldic ceremonies that marked his departure upon leaving the Pentagon. And of course I didn’t put them in but he really, on some level, thinks that he didn’t leave in disgrace.”


And perhaps that says all you need to know.

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.