“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
The Unknown Known is an intense look at the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (who won an Oscar for The Fog of War). Rumsfeld had a meteoric rise in politics after being elected to Congress in 1962 as a 30 year old, and served as Secretary of Defense from 1975 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford, and again from 2001 to 2006 under President George W. Bush. He is often vilified as the architect of the Iraq War for being the figure who justified going to war over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which were never found.
Morris casts his focus on the 20,000 memos in the last 6 years at the Pentagon and the hundreds of thousands of memos he wrote throughout his political career. Chiefly, he looks at Rumsfeld quizzical manner of speaking and expressing himself, as you could see from the above quotes. Essentially Morris is seeking to find the truth behind Rumsfeld’s motivation for pushing the now-unpopular Iraq War.
It’s obvious that Morris is no fan of Rumsfeld, and he liberally uses a fear-inducing score by Danny Elfman to make his dislike of Rumsfeld obvious. During the interview segments, Morris often sounds angry and testy with Rumsfeld, who answers many of his questions with a smile that displays a mixture of wryness and smugness.
Regardless of your opinions on the Iraq War or Rumsfeld himself, he is undeniably a fascinating figure. He was in the Pentagon when the plane hit on September 11. Rumsfeld calls both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 “a failure of imagination.” In other words, the U.S. failed to imagine that these horrific attacks could actually happen. He also lays the blame for the Iraq War on Iraq itself for simply not taking the measures the U.S. offered to prevent the war.
If you’re a Rumsfeld hater and you’re looking for a “smoking gun” that exposes him as a war-mongerer with a secret agenda or something along those lines, you won’t find it here. There are moments where he contradicts himself, but that adds to the curious nature of his character.
However, while it’s clear that Morris is making the case that Rumsfeld might have been lying about the WMDs in Iraq (i.e., Rumsfeld knew there were none but lied), it doesn’t postulate what would be the point of him lying to start a war. I’m surprised that was not addressed, but because it’s a hypothetical based on a hypothetical it would likely feel like a hatchet job in the documentary. But otherwise the documentary really lacks answers, which a lot of people will likely be unhappy with.
Regardless, it’s interesting watching the film in context of what is going on in Iraq right now. One wonders what Rumsfeld’s ultimate legacy will be, and perhaps this film comes too early to provide historical context.
Commentary with Errol Morris — Morris isn’t the most fascinating commentator, and his style isn’t to talk over the entire film. He’ll throw in a few sentences, pause for another few minutes, and then comment again. One of the interesting touches is that he points out what Rumsfeld did not like about the film. He also responds to some of the points Rumsfeld makes and providing context. Collectively, Morris might only speak for an hour of the runtime.
A Conversation with Errol Morris — Morris expresses his surprise about Rumsfeld agreeing to do the film since he clearly disagrees with him politically. Though this feature is technically eight minutes long, it is full of clips from the movie so it’s actually about half that length in actual content. In truth, it’s all information that is already covered in the commentary.
Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense — An hour-long program from 1989 featuring several Secretaries of Defense debating Cold War policy and post-Cold War policy. Relevant clips of this are already in the documentary, and it is essentially what you would see on C-SPAN. This might be of some interest to Cold War history buffs, but will definitely be skipped over by most viewers.
Four-part Op-Ed “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld” — This is the text of a four-part editorial series that Morris penned about his interviews with Rumsfeld. Reading it gives a clearer picture of how Morris approached Rumsfeld in the film.
Movie Review: A documentary about a fascinating political figure that discovers it is impossible to answer its own questions (6/10).
Disc Rating: Perhaps only for history and/or political buffs (5/10).
The Unknown Known will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 1 from Anchor Bay and Radius-TWC.