Movie Review: The Unknown Known

April 20, 2014
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Above image by Jason and Bonnie Grower / copy

Donald Rumsfeld may not know it, but he’d make a fantastic stand-up. “I don’t do quagmires,” Rumsfeld once told Helen Thomas at a White House morning briefing when she was trying to work in comparatives of the Iraq conflagration with the Vietnam War.

Donald Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known

Well, as was the case with the late lamented Ms. Thomas and many an old politico painted blue or red, it seemed sort of logical that if the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris could pull life lessons out of the cold, raw fish of a micro-managing bureaucrat who was the trusted architect of the Vietnam war, Robert McNamara, he sure as sushi could learn something about whatever philosophical and strategic pablum was available in the mind of the eminénce grise of the Iraq conflagration, Donald Rumsfeld.

Both Morris’ documentary film about McNamara, The Fog of War (2003), and his new film on Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, are dependent upon a single-source Q & A. And although Morris’ deft questioning may have often moved McNamara to the verge of black tears, no such apogee of reason can be elicited from this Teflon-hided Cheshire Cat of a self-described ‘public servant.’

After quitting (or being fired by Dubya from) his job in 2006, Rummy has nothing but time. Rumsfeld, a pronounced admirer of Morris’ work on In the Fog of War, wouldn’t make himself available at first, but perhaps stung by the critical reaction to his own memoirs coupled with a multiplicity of indirect jibes leveled at him like, umm, buckshot by Dick Cheney and President Bush, he seems to have forced himself to become ‘available,’ albeit marginally so.

Morris is ready for him. The Unknown Known, like The Fog of War, depends upon its subject staring straight into the camera and letting us figure him out. The problem, of course, is not with Rumsfeld, but us. Rumsfeld, like all political piggies, is a past master of the sound bite. The Unknown Known falters if we expect more from the mode of jocular, sarcastic sport he chooses to make of answering Morris’ questions.


Absolutely, brazenly callous, Rumsfeld answers questions by making repartée out of each riposte; answers that are non-answers. Is he unable to assess the real consequences of his policy decisions? This ignoble Cheshire Cat does not have cloth ears, he simply reiterates the implicit true nobility of his position. The youngest Secretary of Defense Under Gerald Ford in 1974, he became the oldest man to have taken up the job under George W. Bush in 2000. This implies heft and integrity, loyalty and competence… Doesn’t it?

Donald Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known
Above image by Jason and Bonnie Grower / copy


Ask him about this. He calls himself cool and measured, and not, he insists, obsessive. Was it part of the job description that he needed to be curt and cool enough to communicate an emotional detachment from human suffering? Yet Rumsfeld is well known to have written tens of thousands of work memos, handwritten notes composed at all hours with great frequency and finicky detail. Not obsessive? Several of the memos, which Rummy nicknamed “snowflakes,” are read aloud in the film. It makes one uneasy to realize his repeated need for crystal clarity, followed by a further need to render that moment of clarity further clarity. Obsessive, nah!

“Within a few years the U.S. will undoubtedly have to confront a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons!” he barks out in his memo written in July 2001, like it’s his middle finger flipping the bird to a misunderstanding world.

Reading his own words again, Rumsfeld’s tone is that of a lecturer to the simple-minded masses. It’s definitely not repentant. What the crafty old captain of the Princeton Greco-Roman wrestling team likes to do is parse semantics. Go on, dare to ask him about there being zero evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

“The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence!” he sneers after licking his lips.

Indeed, he is happy to inform us that, as the war raged on his watch, he spent beaucoup hours poring over the Pentagon dictionary (there is one, I looked it up, okay?), which is different from the regular dictionary. Like his ad infinitum memos, it smacks of a mode of dithering. When Rumsfeld says of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, “You know, he was living his image of himself. Which was pretend,” it sounds like an epitaph.

There’s really no more to it than that. Morris tries to engage Rumsfeld with conversation about Shakespeare’s view of history, as a grand, gory escalation of character flaws and petty jealousies. And Rumsfeld… Rumsfeld just agrees. There is no King Lear here, just Rummy!

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