Watching The Unknown Known, I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. There was Donald Rumsfeld mischievously grinning like the Cheshire Cat, and a whimsical musical score by Danny Elfman. There were animated interludes of voices and graphics, and panned shots of sea and sky. There were tricks and riddles and unsettling feelings of vagueness and doubt. Was it all a dream?
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Errol Morris
Producers: Amanda Branson Gill, Robert Fernandez, Errol Morris
Cinematographer: Robert Chappell
Music: Danny Elfman
Editor: Steven Hathaway
Cast: Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris
Premiere: August 29, 2013 - Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014
US Distributor: Radius-TWC
Down the rabbit hole we go again with Errol Morris, patriarch of the modern documentary form, who himself has made the comparison to Lewis Carroll's tale. On the surface a biographical documentary of Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known is a journey into the singular mind of one of America's greatest modern war architects, and in that regard an obvious sequel to Morris' Academy Award-winning The Fog of War. In both films, former U.S. Secretaries of Defense reflect on their careers, accomplishments, missteps and regrets. Or, at least in The Fog of War, missteps and regrets. Where Robert McNamara adopted a conciliatory, redemptive tone about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Rumsfeld anchors himself in his own moral righteousness about the War on Terror. He’s not quite the bulldog he was in so many infamous Department of Defense press briefings, but he still remembers his combative stance, and unholsters his incisive wit with the same winking smile.
Using his innovative Interrotron technology (the better to capture Rumsfeld’s steely-eyed stare), Morris structures the lengthy interviews around Rumsfeld’s reading aloud from his collection of more than 20,000 personal memos, drafted during the decades he spent at the deepest levels of American government. The content of the memos is not particularly enlightening, but the scale and scope serve as evidence that Rumsfeld has truly been one of the most influential political figures of the last century. He was on the front lines, both literally and figuratively, for numerous major historical events: in the Oval Office with Pres. Nixon during the fall of Saigon; in the line of fire during the failed assassination attempt on Pres. Ford; in the private company of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War; and among the first responders to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, literally helping stretcher victims from the crash site. As Morris suggests, if not for timing and corridor political jostling, Rumsfeld very likely would have been next in line for Vice President and ultimately President.
Rumsfeld agrees, and recalls his time in various offices with measured boastfulness, like the homecoming king at a high school reunion who still believes his crown was awarded on merit and not favoritism. He doesn’t feel the need to praise any of his former White House colleagues or counterparts, but doesn’t offer much criticism, either (other than a few jabs at his archrival George H.W. Bush). In fact that’s one of the most frustrating elements of the entire proceeding: Rumsfeld talks a lot but doesn’t really say anything. This is his trademark, of course, and Morris often appears silently dumbfounded during their conversation—you can imagine him staring back at Rumsfeld with his brows furrowed, fighting the temptation to scoff and shake his head in exasperation. Rumsfeld obviously must have seen The Fog of War at some point, and he never flinches or shows the slightest hint of surprise at Morris’ relatively gentle questioning.
Considering all of his experience, the most interesting thing to me about Rumsfeld is that he was never a lawyer, or for that matter a poet. The man is a verbal gymnast, masterful at eviscerating questions by playing with words and posing logical proofs as answers (on the lack of WMDs in Iraq: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”). He’s also brilliant at shutting down a line of questioning by insulting the intelligence of a questioner (on the tailspin of looting and chaos after the fall of Saddam: “Stuff happens and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”). Of course his infamous line about “known unknowns” is the inspiration for the film’s title, within which Morris identifies an interesting angle that he doesn’t fully explore: the idea of “unknown knowns.” or things that you know but claim that you don’t know. You know, lies.
Accusing Rumsfeld of lying is pointless, but I wish Morris would have pressed harder to reveal the dynamics of Rumsfeld’s worldview. Geopolitics seemingly all comes down to Big Questions in Rumsfeld’s mind—a big game of Risk played at 30,000 feet. It’s the perspective one gets from spending a lifetime inside government buildings, and rarely if ever does Rumsfeld even acknowledge that there are actual people who live outside those walls, in Vietnam, or in Iraq, or in the United States. The only time he stoops to describe interaction with regular citizens is in retelling a story—and fighting off tears in the process—about visiting disabled veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
This sort of “What have I done?” introspection is what made The Fog of War so compelling, and that it is entirely missing from The Unknown Known makes it a much less satisfying experience. Not in a gotcha sense (that’s Michael Moore’s forte, not Errol Morris’), but in the sense that even if Rumsfeld would have been more animated in his answers, beating his chest and chanting “USA!”, well at least that would have shown something more of the man behind the enigma.
It’s possible that this was the whole point—that Morris’ objective with The Unknown Known was to prove that U.S. defense policy is carried out by walled-off autocrats who bear no conscience and no consequence for their actions. But that strikes me as an unlikely thesis for a project, and a departure from The Fog of War. I suspect Morris thought he could actually break Rumsfeld and simply failed to draw anything out of him. And in that failure lies the answer to the question on the film’s poster: “Why is this man smiling?”