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Errol Morris Presents Grinning, Nightmarish Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known

04/01/2014 09:49 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2014

The poster for Errol Morris's documentary The Unknown Known shows two-time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with an unsettling grin and the headline, "Why is this man smiling?" It is an apt question, for the chief military architect of the disastrous Iraq War flashes that smirk, relies on homilies, vivisection of language and other forms of obfuscation, rather than directly answering many of Morris's questions in the film.

Despite being bathed in warm, hazy sunlight on the outside deck at the Sunset Tower Hotel, Morris looks unsettled when asked about the Defense Secretary under both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. "I sometimes think of this as a horror film. At other times, I think of it as a mystery." Despite thirty-three hours of interviews with Rumsfeld, Morris has been criticized by some members of the press as well as viewers, who expected some sort of mea culpa, like that which Morris elicited from former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the Oscar-winning The Fog of War.

But Rumsfeld is, as Morris asserts, simply "not self-reflective." The closest he comes to acknowledging any misjudgment or error of any kind is when he is contradicted by the Schlesinger Report on brutal interrogation tactics, a.k.a. "torture," migrating from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. Caught in the headlights of an official Washingtonian finding, all Rumsfeld can manage is the brief and immediate reversal of opinion, "I'd agree with that."

Robert S. McNamara not only changed his mind, while serving the country, about our ability to win the Vietnam War, he also made a commitment to educating the public, in part through The Fog of War, about the dangers, possibility and futility of nuclear war. Rumsfeld, in stark contrast, is not burdened by the facts of Iraq: the 500,000 dead Iraqi citizens, the 4,400 U.S. dead, increased hostility toward the U.S. and the non-existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which became the justification for the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Morris is most upset by Rumsfeld's syllogism to George W. Bush on WMDs, namely "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." Morris grows wide-eyed and animated when repeating the phrase, vehemently declaring, "That can be used to prove anything."

In the process of viewing The Unknown Known, we are provided with Rumsfeld reading some of his more than 20,000 memos or "snowflakes,' so-called because of their proliferation. The steely arrogance of Rumsfeld comes to the fore when he nastily tells NSA advisor Condoleezza Rice he will not be sharing intelligence with her agency, no matter how many times she may ask.

Morris himself can be heard to gasp "Really?" when Rumsfeld states that he read none of the torture memos that came out of the shameful Iraqi prison scandal at Abu Ghraib (dealt with in Morris's Standard Operating Procedure). Thus, rather than contriteness to any degree, Rumsfeld time and again ignores facts, reverses himself and even counter-attacks Morris, most notably and dramatically at the very end of the film.

When I tell Morris that The Unknown Known is filled with "gotcha" moments, not journalistic trickery but startlingly revelatory moments from his subject, he asks, "I'd be interested to know what you think the biggest 'gotcha" moment is." I tell him that in talking about his own wife and their courtship, Rumsfeld actually has the temerity to state on-camera, "I didn't really want to get married. But I didn't want her to marry anyone else, either." Rumsfeld is clearly a technocrat, even in the art of wooing.

Morris delves into Rumsfeld's political career during a section of the film, and it is illuminating to see that he, like former Vice President Dick Cheney and others in George W. Bush's administration, were not weighed down by introspection, conscience or a willingness to consider anything challenging their world view. It is precisely this quality that makes Rumsfeld so much a mystery, as well as a nightmarish public servant with, as Morris's wife Julia Sheehan terms it, "a Cheshire cat smile." As this shocking, important documentary makes clear, there is nothing justifying Donald Rumsfeld smiling in The Unknown Known, except his own hubris.

The Unknown Known, directed by Errol Morris (RADiUS TWC), opening in New York and Los Angeles April 2.