As the US Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, Donald Rumsfeld wielded words both to charm and to bully. His press conferences were lopsided battles where he controlled the flow of information and rarely left time for follow-up questions. In The Unknown Known, he sits down for an extended interview with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris covering topics from Iraq, Abu Ghraib and torture.
Not long ago, a commenter on a veteran film blogger’s site pointed out that the most frustrating thing about many existing reviews of Errol Morris’ career overview of former U.S. Secretary of Defence and long-time political animal Donald Rumsfeld was that said reviews virtually ignored the film itself in favour of an opportunity to vent at the man largely responsible for enabling the American invasion of Iraq.
This is understandable. As the daily face of the George W. Bush administration at press briefings, Rumsfeld moved from back-room politics to the very public lightning rod for growing American frustration at the causes of, and need for, the invasion of Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. The growing anger at Rumsfeld was fueled in no small part by his public demeanour, which is often categorised as arrogantly smug—or smugly arrogant, as one prefers.
Yet few at the time knew that this had apparently been Rumsfeld’s modus operandi since entering politics in 1962 as an elected U.S. Congressman from Illinois. The White House Chief of Staff in the run-up to Gerald Ford’s election defeat in 1976, he was promoted to the then-youngest Secretary of Defence. Interestingly, after decades in the private sector following his 1977 dismissal, Rumsfeld was recommended by old friend Dick Cheney, whom he in turn had recommended to step in and run the Ford White House, as Secretary of Defence to George W. Bush—whose father, ironically, Rumsfeld had tried to elbow out of the way in pursuit of the Vice Presidency under Ronald Reagan. Think about how history might have gone had he been successful. Now think about the darker meanings of the maxim ‘politics makes for strange bedfellows’.
The film’s title, Rumsfeld explains, comes from a long-standing philosophy by which he navigated the corridors of power: in a 2004 memo with the subject line ‘What You Know,’ he wrote “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.”
No wonder his critics summon such intense vitriol: here’s a well-connected politician who has been heartbeats away from hugely important geopolitical decisions yet seems perfectly comfortable living in a smokescreen of phraseology that explains nothing, answers nothing and offers no after-the-fact remorse or contrition for the tragically wrong decisions that were made during the Bush administration. “Stuff happens,” he actually says at one point, by way of illustrating… what, exactly? Little wonder Morris has said publicly he thought much of Rumsfeld’s language consisted of “principles you might find in a Chinese fortune cookie”.
Conceptually and in execution, The Unknown Known is more of a piece with Morris’ recent, increasingly politically-centred films, and may even be seen as a logical extension and continuation of themes in both the 2003 Oscar-winning The Fog of War, which profiled the notably remorseful former U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara, and the less-seen yet far more incendiary 2008 examination of atrocities committed at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, Standard Operating Procedure.
By now, Morris’ films are instantly recognisable as his own and those of no other. Working from the foundation of profoundly interesting and off-the-beaten track subjects, he builds meticulously researched histories massaged with profoundly metaphorical CGI and image manipulation, set to hypnotic scores by the likes of longtime collaborator Philip Glass, Alloy Orchestra keyboardist Caleb Sampson (who tragically took his own life in 1998), Danny Elfman (who does the honours here) or John Kusiak.
Here, Morris has dark fun with Rumsfeld’s well-known penchant for memo-writing, illustrating the some 20,000 so-called “snowflakes” (they were on white paper and piled up) with sly visual imagery that culminates in a literal sea of words. And he’s still using the ‘Interrotron’, that device of his own invention that allows his subjects to speak directly to him and the camera simultaneously.
More important of a question than how a man like Rumsfeld might come to hold so much power is the question of why Errol Morris felt the need to base a feature-length documentary around his ascent to that power. Perhaps the answer to this lies in Morris’ oeuvre itself: many of his films exist because he pursued various versions of his own unknown knowns, and shared those results with the world as a series of entertaining cautions. (This film is dedicated to Roger Ebert, an early and staunch champion of his work.)
His relative tolerance of Rumsfeld’s attitude throughout the film suggests this possibility, as does the dark punchline that concludes The Unknown Known on yet another maddeningly evasive note. Sometimes, in the face of a man like Donald Rumsfeld, it’s best to sit back and let Errol Morris’ Interrotron do its work.