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Telluride: Errol Morris' 'The Unknown Known' Puts Spotlight on Donald Rumsfeld, Draws Buzz

The documentary master, who won an Oscar a decade ago for his film "The Fog of War," grills another ex-secretary of defense in front of his Interrotron.

The Unknown Known

TELLURIDE, Colo. – On Thursday evening, one day short of 10 years since Errol Morris came to Telluride with The Fog of War, he returned to the mountain village to debut another doc in which he questions a lifelong public servant, Donald Rumsfeld, in The Unknown Known.

In The Fog of War, the documentary filmmaking master got Robert McNamara to speak candidly about his controversial decisions, and the title won the the best documentary feature Oscar.

RADiUS-TWC will release The Unknown Known later this year, hoping to strike similar awards gold.

The film received hearty applause from a packed Sheridan Opera House audience that included fellow doc legend/Telluride regular Ken Burns and Jason Reitman, whose film Labor Day became the first to play at this year's fest earlier in the day. Morris, who flew in from Boston, will take the film to Venice and then to Toronto next, all within a week.

With many 2013 documentaries still to come, it's impossible to know at this point what the future will hold for The Unknown Known, which derives its title from a maxim in one of the thousands of memos, or "snowflakes," that self-styled philosopher "Rummy" wrote throughout his decades in the U.S. government. But on the basis of the film's strong reception here and the success of The Fog of War, a similar if more satisfying film -- more satisfying because McNamara essentially acknowledged that he had made serious mistakes, whereas Rumsfeld does not (although he does tear up at one point) -- I think it's likely to be nominated.

The 109-minute doc, which is the product of 35 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld, essentially reiterates what we already knew about the man from previous media coverage: He, like his one-time deputy Dick Cheney and his one-time boss George W. Bush, is someone who possesses an unshakable worldview and who never seems to doubt and finds endless ways -- and terminology, a fetish of his -- to justify his past decisions, even those that history has shown to be mistakes. 

The most striking and, in some ways, disturbing thing about the doc is that Rumsfeld, even under the microscope of Morris' Interrotron camera (which enables a viewer to almost see into the soul of an interview subject), actually comes across as smart, charming and mostly likable -- save for a few creepy instances when he holds a smile for a little too long.

I guess he wouldn't have been able to stick around in the top ranks of the U.S. government for a half-century if he didn't. He was sort of a Francis Underwood before Kevin Spacey was even out of his crib!

The only knock on the film that I heard after it ended, while on the gondola heading back to my hotel, is that it's perhaps a bit too long and essentially a talking-head film, with graphics and illustrations seemingly employed primarily to mix things up rather than to add anything of any real substance or value (i.e. flashing the definitions of words on the screen). I think there's some legitimacy to those gripes.

But I also think that it's worth the price of admission to watch Morris, one of the world's great minds and interrogators -- who told the New York Times years ago that he has an ''endless fascination'' with the extent to which ''people who engage in evil believe in some real sense that they are doing good" -- put Rumsfeld in the hot seat. When Morris asks his last question, the subject's face and response are priceless.

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.