Errol Morris probably isn’t a name that even the most knowledgeable and worldly Internet readership (Pajibans, of course) know, or know all that well. I probably wouldn’t know a damn thing about Morris if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have a professor in college who showed us Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control in an intro styles class — immediately making Morris, the movie, and that prof favorites of mine for life. Not only did we learn that Morris’ first major documentary, Thin Blue Line,
won an Oscar and freed a man from prison who was wrongly accused of committing murder, but also that — adjacent to Ken Burns — Morris is one of the originators of the cinematic language for what we typically call “the documentary.” Burns devised the voice-over testimonial, while Morris utilized the talking head interview, and both interspersed dramatizations or re-enactments between their favored form of expositional dump.
Basically, every documentary you’ve ever seen can be traced back, stylistically, to these two directors. But, if we’re being honest, even though Ken Burns is deservedly well-known for his epic-sized television docs, Morris is the more artistic of the two, and consistently reaches for deeper, less attractive truths. Maybe it’s because Morris’ presence is only ever felt in his films when he allows the viewer to hear him ask his subject(s), off-camera, perhaps the most important or telling question of the film or interview, whereas Ken Burns never titled a movie without his name all over it?
It would be nigh impossible to pick a favorite Errol Morris movie, if only because he consistently churns out excellence (including his TV work for IFC), but his profile on Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense (under JFK, then LBJ), in Fog of War is one of the most engrossing interviews I’ve ever seen. Granted, Morris also spruces up his subject with excellent footage between the talking head, but his ability to get a man like McNamara to speak at such length, a man who rarely answered questions about his tenure in government so openly and honestly, was practically breathtaking. After the initial interview, McNamara even asked Morris for another round of questions, which the director happily obliged. But something tells me that when Morris sits down to interview Donald Rumsfeld for a feature length documentary, a sort of sequel to Fog, the atmosphere might not be nearly as genial or effusive.
Then again, the fact that Old Rummy is sitting down with Morris at all means that he must be ready, willing, and able to talk about some of the things he’s never made public before. I certainly can’t imagine that Morris would fail to ask some hard hitting questions, especially after Standard Operating Procedure unflinchingly examined the abuse of terror suspects at Abu Ghraib. If the phrase “unknown unknowns” isn’t mentioned at least once, I’ll be shocked. Tellingly, a studio head at Sony Pictures Classics, the money behind Morris’ most recent features and likely this new one, offered some words of encouragement: “[Morris and Rumsfeld]’ll sit until things go wrong.” (Emphasis mine.)
Sounds like a good time to me. Not for shits and giggles like when Sacha Baron Cohen trolled Ron Paul in Bruno, but somebody desperately needs to ask him the uncomfortable questions in a non-comedy setting. After all, Rumsfeld is the former youngest (under Ford) and oldest (under Bush 2.0) SecDef who presided over two recent wars, which he told the U.S. public would be wrapped up in a handful of weekends rather than going on 10 years. No baiting. No (ahem) “gotcha” tactics. Just good, honest journalism from somebody who’s proven themselves capable. Lord knows we can’t expect anything of the sort from the Lamestream Media.*
Personally, I doubt that Rumsfeld will be as charming as McNamara ended up in Fog of War, but whatever movie comes out his conversation with Morris, it ought to be a Must Watch for the entire citizenry. I can’t wait.
Until then, please to enjoy these short films Errol Morris made for the Oscars in 2002 and 2006 (it may be the best thing you do all day, and nobody ever says that in conjunction with the Oscars anymore):
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his ware can be purchased here (if you’re into that sort of thing). He thinks he gets the whole “unknown unknowns” thing, he just wants to see it explicated by Rumsfeld himself.