Review: THE UNKNOWN KNOWN Gives A Frustratingly Accurate Portrait Of Our Image Of Donald Rumsfeld

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Review: THE UNKNOWN KNOWN Gives A Frustratingly Accurate Portrait Of Our Image Of Donald Rumsfeld
A snow globe shaking back and forth, little white flecks - snowflakes - swirl and obfuscate whatever is in the globe. Oh my, what a loaded image. 

It is one of the chief ones Errol Morris employs in The Unknown Known, his lengthy interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Another is an endless ocean of waves: a blank canvas or adrift in the wilderness? True to form, after 96 minutes of Rumsfeld speaking, I felt as if I learned nothing at all from what he was saying. A marvelous bit of form echoing content, although for the sake of learning from history, it can be a bit infuriating. 

Rumsfeld, very recognizable for doing so many podium PR sessions on TV for the better part of a decade, was (is?) a career politician from a young age and when these interviews were shot, he was hawking his memoir, Unknown & Known. He's served two terms as U.S. Secretary of Defense, a stint as a Congressman, the White House Chief of Staff (and Dick Cheney's boss), and at one point was close to getting the Republican nomination to run for the Presidency. 

His second time in office as Secretary of Defense was during 21st Century America's greatest foreign policy challenges, 9/11 and the so-called 'War On Terror.' He issued tens if not hundreds of thousands of memos -- which he indeed calls snowflakes -- and was a significant architect of a lot of policy. He dictates many of those memos verbatim for the camera -- a camera which almost desperately tries to keep up, scanning the documents like a typewriter. 

There is no doubt he was a mover and a shaker, but his chief job appeared to be to say a lot without saying anything. He's good at it. He has a smile that is predatory and conspiratorially reassuring. He uses it often, but it is unclear if it is as a shield, an ego boost, or an act of relief to have made his point. Maybe none of those things; many people have their opinions of this man. I have mine. Morris apparently has his. 

There is a very polite, but very passive aggressive thing at play in this interview that seemed absent in the place of 'getting somewhere' with Morris' other cabinet-level interview, the Oscar-winning The Fog Of War. There, Robert McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, was similar in age at the time as Rumsfeld is here, but perhaps there was more distance in the history he was talking about. Even 12 years (to the day, no less, as I write this) after 9/11, The Patriot Act, the Iraq Invasion, and Afghanistan War are all still quite fresh, more so than WWII and Vietnam was in 2004 for McNamara.

The one insight I get is the statement that America, and the government of most countries for that matter, doesn't so much repeat the mistakes of the predecessors, but finds new spectacularly original ways to make mistakes. McNamara seemed to want to draw lessons, Rumsfeld seems far more careerist; he just wants to swirl around the dirt. 

In an interview, Morris said that he considered The Unknown Known more of a sequel to his previous film, Tabloid, than The Fog of War. There, a woman found excitingly original ways of deluding herself and separating herself from the culpability of her actions. I can certainly agree with this statement. There is so much wordplay -- nay wordsmithing -- and doublespeak going on, then and now. How about this bon mot: "An inevitably unpleasant ending to an unsuccessful endeavour." I hope I have that correct.  

Morris is quite aggressive in calling Rumsfeld on his contradictions, in fact, Morris probably has more off-screen questions than in any of his other films. When it is all said and done, Rumsfeld simply says, "Stuff just happens." It's an ugly truth, but I'm guessing not a complete truth. The speech rhythms are hypnotic, but not elucidating on a single viewing. Maybe never. 

I know that the film is a great bit of documentary filmmaking, in capturing the subject, but I am not sure if I learned anything other than that terminology evolves. The expression from which the film title is taken, the famously misunderstood quotation from Rumsfeld (even if it is an old bit of Pentagon gospel) can be broken into four parts. The part utilized here for the title of the film is fascinating in that it can be spun two ways with meaning 180 degrees from each way. You can have it both ways. Rumsfeld did. Maybe Morris does too. 

Maybe it doesn't matter. After five years, America is still making original mistakes, and the world is still lost in a blizzard. Maybe all we can settle for is craft.

Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, April 4, and will also be available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms.

The Unknown Known

  • Errol Morris
  • Errol Morris
  • Donald Rumsfeld
  • Errol Morris
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DocumentaryDonald RumsfeldErrol MorrisBiographyHistory

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