According to former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the “unknown known” is a reference to when you think you know something only to find out that you really know nothing about it at all. It is the kind of doublespeak that flows from Rumsfeld’s mouth as calmly as the vast bodies of water director Errol Morris frequently features in the film. Trying to decipher it all, especially in regards to Rumsfeld’s version of fact and fiction, is part of the many charms of Morris’ latest work, The Unknown Known. A cross between his Oscar-winning The Fog of War and his last film Tabloid in overall tone, the film is a result of over thirty hours of interviews between Morris and Rumsfeld over the course of a year.
As to be expected, Morris peppers Rumsfeld with various questions about his political career with an emphasis on 9/11 and the War in Iraq. While it is often said that we know almost everything there is to know about the Iraq War; Rumsfeld brings an insider’s perspective which helps provide additional context to several aspects including the Bush Administration’s mindset in regards to Saddam Hussein. It is fascinating to see Rumsfeld try to spin that assassination is wrong, but removal or death by war is acceptable. Ever the media savvy politician, Rumsfeld talks both in truths and circles over the course of the film. After many years in the political spotlight, Rumsfeld is still as sharp and cagey as ever.
Morris does a good job of highlighting how Rumsfeld not only evolved into, but at times reveled in being, a political star in the media. The film charts Rumsfeld’s involvement all the way back to the Nixon and Ford Administrations, as well as his experiences with both George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush. Morris paints a picture of Rumsfeld as a man who was always thinking several moves ahead at every stage. As Rumsfeld himself notes in several of the 20,000 plus memos, or “snowflakes” as he referred to them, he took during his career in politics, his greatest worry was being in a situation where the intelligence was not imaginative enough to think of every possible scenario. He points to the events at Pearl Harbor as examples of this, only to have America witness it all over again with 9/11.
As with all of Errol Morris’ documentaries, The Unknown Known is a visual treat to experience. The visuals, and Danny Elfman’s score for that matter, offer a much needed reflective pauses from Rumsfeld’s truths, half-truths and frequent contradictions. Rumsfeld is such a charismatic figure that it is easy to get swept up into some of the rhetoric and riddles he spews. Like the skilled interviewer and filmmaker he is, Errol Morris finds a way to cut through his jargon and displays why Donald Rumsfeld is one of the most fascinating political figures in recent years.