A red carpet night for The Unknown Known

Errol Morris and the stars come out for Donald Rumsfeld documentary.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Errol Morris on The Unknown Known:
Errol Morris on The Unknown Known: "It could be like Jabberwocky out of Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
"It's a failure of imagination. It's important to have priorities," says former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and we see his memo on strategic thought from September 30, 2001 on the screen in Errol Morris's The Unknown Known.

In New York the snowflakes were falling as Peggy Siegal hosted a perfect evening with Tom Brokaw and Errol Morris in conversation at the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle followed by dinner at Circo. Among those walking the red carpet before The Unknown Known were Naomi Wolf, Candice Bergen, David Chase, Jamie Colby and 60 Minutes men Morley Safer and Bob Simon.

I had a quick chat with Errol Morris and Naomi Wolf before the screening.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There seems to be some confusion what the Unknown Known really is. Can you give me your definition?

Errol Morris: Have you seen the movie?

AKT: Yes, I have.

EM: At the heart of this movie The Unknown Known is what happens when you have a subject who isn't even aware when he is lying. There is confusion but let's address one other possibility, that it's just nonsense talk. Maybe it means whatever we want it to mean. Maybe it means nothing at all. It could be like Jabberwocky out of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

AKT: Rumsfeld on slithy toves?

EM: Yeah.

AKT: What do you think of when you hear Unknown Known?

Naomi Wolf: I haven't seen this film yet. I'm looking forward to it. You mean in general?

AKT: Yes, in this context or in general.

Naomi Wolf on the unknown known in general:
Naomi Wolf on the unknown known in general: "There's the known which is terrorism and then there's the hype and manipulation of people's fears about the other"

Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

NW: If you think about it, given the subject matter, to me it evokes the kind of whipping up and marketing of fear that we lived through since 9/11. There's the known which is terrorism and then there's the hype and manipulation of people's fears about the other, about Islam, about people who aren't like us about hypothetical terrorist attacks that will never be part of this version of society at peace, which is what we are and that turns us into people that we are not and we shouldn't be.

Peggy Siegal introduced Tom Brokaw with RADiUS–TWC’s co-founders Tom Quinn and Jason Janego with her on the stage.

Peggy Siegal: I want to thank you from the bottom of my tiny PR heart. Tom [Brokaw] will come up and then Errol will come up and say hello. After the movie we will have a very quick Q&A and then we're going to go to dinner at Circo.

Tom Brokaw: Anybody who believes that Peggy has a teeny PR heart can leave the room right now. First I want to say a few things about my friend Errol. Last time I introduced a film of his to a New York audience was for The Fog Of War and he won an Academy Award. Not that anyone in this audience would not be familiar with Don Rumsfeld but I spent a lot of my adult life studying him, reporting on him, dealing with him. I thought I would share some of my own thoughts. Something you've got to understand about Rumsfeld at the beginning is that he was a champion wrestler in High School, at Princeton and all Navy. He knew all the holds and that really defined his life in so many ways. It is a combative sport after all. It is fatiguing and he took that into any aspect of his life.

He arrived in Washington as a 30-year-old Republican congressman from the North Shore of Chicago. He went to work almost immediately in the Nixon administration on domestic policy and the President admired him but didn't trust his ambition. That was not uncharacteristic of Nixon in those days, obviously, but it was an early-on sign who Donald Rumsfeld was. Rumsfeld got a lucky break. Kissinger and Nixon wanted him out of town. They shipped him off, this is NATO, where he became the American ambassador for two years while Watergate was underway.

He returned to Washington to become Gerald Ford's first White House Chief of Staff, later he became his Secretary of Defense. He was the youngest man to hold that position and then the oldest man to hold that position when he was appointed in this job by President Bush. In these early formative years he stayed close to a young Republican from Wyoming he met in the early days of his commercial career and that was Dick Cheney. As an operative he was smart, tough, wilful and so good at perfecting his turf that he drove Kissinger absolutely nuts.

Tom Brokaw introducing The Unknown Known:
Tom Brokaw introducing The Unknown Known: "Tonight, Errol steps into the ring with Rummy [Rumsfeld]" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Going into the war in Iraq, he was nothing less than the principal architect of the war, the goals, the methods, the expectations and the executions. The unknowns and the knowns… Tonight, Errol steps into the ring with Rummy who displayed the full arsenal of his verbal and philosophical hold and as you shall see in the film, he never reaches for the ropes. We're about to see something that is very important in terms of contemporary and the long reach of history. What we won't see is equally important because those are the moves that kept Don Rumsfeld in office for as long as he was. I'm very pleased to have now a few words from a friend, the genius filmmaker Errol Morris.

EM: I wish I could have Tom at every single screening. The best introduction that I ever had by one of the great journalists of our time. This has been one of the more difficult interviews I've ever done. Perhaps because I made a mistake at the outset. The mistake of thinking that I might find something out or that there might be something to find out. There's a mystery for me at the heart of this film.

After the screening Morris said a few more words about his experiences with his subject.

EM: In so many ways, Rumsfeld was incredibly gracious. He came to Boston five separate times. I had 30 hours of interview material to work with. This is the first time that the "snowflakes" [as Rumsfeld's millions of memos are known] were turned over to the public. He gave me access to almost all the declassified snowflakes. Charming, incredibly well-spoken, and yet I left with this very very strange interview that I'm still very much puzzled by. The strange answers or non answers. The war in Vietnam - "one of the great American nightmares", "a terrible debacle". Saigon is being evacuated, the war is coming to an end, I asked him, What did you learn from Vietnam? And the answer is, "Some things work out, some things don't". "All generalities are false, including this one." Often when I correct him because he said something completely untrue, he basically ignores it or it doesn't seem to register.

Errol Morris greets Tom Brokaw:
Errol Morris greets Tom Brokaw: "The best introduction that I ever had by one of the great journalists of our time" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
At the end of the film I ask him why are you doing this, why are you talking to me? His answer is, well, it's a two part answer, one, "That's a vicious question" and the second part, "I'll be darned if I know." It seems to me that theme runs through almost everything. A strange kind of cluelessness… Several people have compared this movie to Orwell and Orwell's fascination how language can be used to obscure. This is a new development from Orwell. It's the use of language to obscure and obfuscate things from yourself. If you come off with the right set of definitions then all the problems you might have to confront magically disappear.

Asked about the difference between former US Secretary of Defense Robert S McNamara, the subject of The Fog of War and Rumsfeld, EM said: My wife made the very best comparison. She called Robert McNamara the Flying Dutchman. A guy who travels the world searching for redemption and never ever finding it. And Donald Rumsfeld she called the Cheshire Cat. As Alice said, "I've often seen a cat without a grin. But I've never ever seen a grin without a cat." And at times, that's what I'm left with - this infernal grin.

Asked if Rumsfeld had seen the film, Morris responded: He has seen four versions of it. As I was editing it, I promised him, even though he had no editorial control. I have been the recipient of many , many, many Rumsfeld snowflakes… I think he liked it, but you would be better off asking him.

On the red carpet earlier, veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer tried to clear things up.

Morley Safer, with a smile:
Morley Safer, with a smile: "Unknown! It's unknown. Doubly unknown" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anne-Katrin Titze: What is the Unknown Known to you?

Morley Safer: Unknown! It's unknown. Doubly unknown.

"The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" and "stuff happens" are well remembered quotes and show up in the documentary like best-of highlights. Expected and delivered. Rumsfeld's letter of resignation in reaction to the detainee scandal, "Something terrible happened on my watch" - prompts the filmmaker to ask if it hadn't been better not to go there at all. "Time will tell," is his response.

The Unknown Known is out now in cinemas across the UK.

Share this with others on...

The image makers Caroline Champetier on Vilmos Zsigmond, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, and her career

Sundance 2018: Festival preview Films we're looking forward to at this year's festival

It never was you Laurie Simmons on My Art and pushing boundaries

On the road Paolo Virzì on Donald Sutherland, Helen Mirren and The Leisure Seeker

Alberto Vazquez retrospective comes to Scotland Spanish animator will also host masterclass

Palm Springs announces winners Félicité, The Charmer and The Insult among prizes.

More news and features

We're bringing you news and reviews direct from Sundance, checking out some of the indie films likely to make a big splash this year.

We're looking forward to the Glasgow Film Festival.

We've recently been at the Palm Springs film festival, the first big event in the 2018 film calender. We wrapped up last year with coverage from Made In Prague, Welsh horror festival Abertoir, the London Korean Film Festival and DOC NYC.

Read our full for recent coverage.

Visit our festivals section.


Get your New Year off to a winning start with our competitions to win a copy of Bad Day For The Cut and Sweet Virginia.