I'm not sure how film documentary-maker Errol Morris does it. I don't mean that I don't know how the acclaimed filmmaker creatively turns out such impressive work. I mean, I don't have a clue how he gets certain people to sit down and agree to be the subject of his documentaries.He convinced former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara -- one of the architects of the Vietnam War -- to talk about himself...and actually do an impressive mea culpa about Vietnam...for the wonderful film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which won the Academy Award for Best Feature-length Documentary.
And now he's convinced yet another former Secretary of Defense, this time Donald Rumsfeld -- one of the architects of the Iraq War -- to sit down, read his infamous "Snowflake" memos on camera, and talk about himself (minus the mea culpa) for Morris's new film, The Unknown Known.
"Snowflakes" are what Rumsfeld called his massive volume of memos that he wrote in his nearly half-century in the government. It was a career that covered his being a Congressman (representing my home district outside of Chicago, I might add -- which shows you how conservative the district was where I grew up...), White House Chief of Staff, twice Secretary of Defense, Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and businessman, as well as architect of a policy that allowed for torture.
Morris came to acclaim with the documentary, The Thin Blue Line. In this new film, he gets Rumsfeld to read on camera many of these "Snowflakes" and explain them, providing his version of history and absolutes, in a world far less absolute.
In Robert McNamara's case, it's possible that after 40 years and a personal transformation, he wanted an outlet to express his changed views and even offer a sort of apology. And with Errol Morris's reputation, he seemed an exemplary outlet for it. Perhaps in Donald Rumsfeld's case it was a bit of competitive ego, seeing another Defense Secretary get his movie and come across well. And, again, knowing Morris's quality, he would be given a respectable platform. Who knows? But I suspect, too, most anyone who goes before a camera such as this thinks that they're better, and they'll best the lens.
But again, who knows? Yet there he is, Donald Rumsfeld. And his "Snowflakes."
"My goodness, the intelligence was certainly wrong," the always absolutely-certain Mr. Rumsfeld told ABC News in February, 2011.
My goodness, indeed.
But then as the actress vamp Mae West once said, "Goodness had nothing to do with it."
Here's a very brief, yet deeply fascinating excerpt of The Unknown Known, as Mr. Rumsfeld reads and explains why he wasn't ever obsessed with Iraq, yet was instead quite a cool and measured fellow about it all. Chillingly.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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