Errol Morris: 'People Expect Me to Throttle Donald Rumsfeld'

In his new movie The Unknown Known, American film director Errol Morris investigates the causes of the Iraq War and puts Donald Rumsfeld under interrogation. He explained to Max Tholl why he chooses understanding over judging and why his movies are political rather than politically motivated.

The European: A decade ago, when you won the Academy Award for The Fog of War, you said in your acceptance speech: "If people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, then perhaps I've done some damn good here." Do you think that the lessons have been learned?

Morris: No, I don't. The situations have changed, the names have changed, the dates have changed, but essentially the same kind of story is just repeating itself unendingly.

The European: Do films or books even have the power to change people's political point of view?

Morris: Of course they have. But we should not exaggerate this capacity. It is unlikely that a film or a book will change the course of history or even determine the outcome of a smaller and more specific process like a criminal prosecution, for example. But in principle, it should be able to do that, and you are always hoping that it will. In fact, one of my movies, The Thin Blue Line, did have that effect and helped to release a man who had been unjustly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

The European: Would you agree that film is an extension of politics by visual means?

Morris: Is this your von Clausewitz definition of film? I like it!

The European: But?

Morris: But I am not completely convinced. I am well aware that film can be used for so many different purposes and to so many different ends. But what I do is make films about stories or issues that are interesting or important to me. In a way it's ironic that The Fog of War came out just when we were about to go to war in Iraq. But I didn't do that on purpose.

"You can't make an apolitical film about war."

The European: Are you trying to make a political statement with your movies or are you just trying to highlight and explore an issue that interests you?

Morris: I would say that it is all of the above. It doesn't have to be one thing or the other. I felt very strongly that the Iraq War was a terrible mistake, but I didn't simply make the Fog of War to address the policies of the Bush administration. Robert McNamara -- the former U.S. Secretary of Defense and the film's protagonist -- had fascinated me for most of my adult life and this was an opportunity to come to grips with him and some of the issues that led to the Vietnam War.

The European: So you wouldn't describe yourself as a political director?

Morris: No. I have made a lot of movies that are not political.

The European: French director Jean-Luc Godard famously argued that he is not "interested in making political films but in making films politically" -- to constantly question the obvious and to use the film to the benefit of society. Do you work according to a similar ethos when you're shooting political documentaries?

Morris: There are films that are clearly arguing for a political point of view. Several of my films concentrate on politics because they examine political figures or events. You can't make an apolitical film about war. But it is not my intention to make a political film per se. It's just a way to think about politics and to explore things I wanted to know more about. My films are first and foremost an investigation.

The European: An investigation of the "Unknown Known"?

Morris: Absolutely. I was, for example, struck by the difference between the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2002. McNamara describes a meeting of the Executive Committee on how to avoid war with the Soviet Union. I was surprised by the efforts made, not to go to war, but to avoid it. Forty years later, Rumsfeld goes to Dick Cheney's office in the West Wing to provide assurances to the ambassador from Saudi Arabia that we will go to war no matter what. That's a really frightening story to me. I have tried to show in my movies that we should think twice, think three times or five times before going to war.

"There simply is no apologizing for Vietnam or Iraq."

The European: What was your motivation to interview both Robert McNamara and now Donald Rumsfeld for your movies?

Morris: It's probably my attempt to understand why we went to war -- in Vietnam and in Iraq.

The European: McNamara and Rumsfeld were the chief "architects" of those wars. Was it also a way to put them on trial or under interrogation?

Morris: You can probably call the movies my own private interrogation -- I wouldn't argue with that. But getting out a confession wasn't the primary reason to make either of these two films. That's not my duty.

The European: But you're nevertheless happy when it happens: In The Fog of War McNamara admits his guilt and wrongdoing...

Morris: I choose understanding over judging. I want to hear their reasons for going to war, but I don't want to publicly put them on trial for it. Otherwise it becomes this quasi-religious thing of supposed redemption. I don't even know what an apology in this context would mean. There simply is no apologizing for Vietnam or Iraq, so why aim for it?

The European: Did you even expect redemption from Rumsfeld?

Morris: No, I didn't. McNamara and Rumsfeld are two very different characters, regardless of what people say. I am quite sure that a number of people will criticize The Unknown Known.

The European: Why?

Morris: Because they're expecting an apology or an admission of responsibility, as if that was the main goal of any kind of political movie. If you're not playing into those expectations, you're inviting a lot of criticism and out-and-out nastiness. People probably expect me to get out of my chair and throttle Donald Rumsfeld -- to force him to admit his guilt. But to me, it's deeply significant that Rumsfeld is not apologizing and that he tries to portray himself as the good guy. It helps us to understand his actions, his motivation.

"The prurient and the pedantic."

The European: Why would somebody like Rumsfeld or McNamara even agree to speak to you? They clearly knew that you would confront them rather than compliment them.

Morris: Unfortunately, you can no longer ask Robert McNamara but he told me that he enjoyed talking to me because I was interested in what he had said and written. Rumsfeld is not dissimilar in this respect. He has spent a good deal of his working life spinning stories and commenting on events. He probably saw this as another opportunity to do just that.

The European: Other documentaries of yours, such as Tabloid and Gates of Heaven, focus on somewhat oddball stories rather than political realities. Do you approach these projects differently or is it just the topic that changes?

Morris: It's too complicated to reduce it to a "same approach, different topic" formula. But of course, there are a lot of similarities, if only because it's the same guy directing and the same people editing these movies. I always want to find out who these people in front of my camera really are. I want to capture the complexity of the individual and that of his surroundings. If I succeed in doing that, then I have made a good film.

The European: How would you describe your work in one word?

Morris: Perverse.

The European: Interesting.

Morris: I tell stories in a way that is not only unexpected but also absolutely contrary to what people would like to hear. It's an odd combination of the prurient and the pedantic.