Overlooked Films: The Unknown Known

Directed by Errol Morris
History Films, 110 minutes, PG-13
* * * *

If you think Dick Cheney is scary, Rumsfeld is worse!
This review debuts a new blog feature: films I overlooked at the cinema for a variety of reasons: a short run, too busy, tepid word-of-mouth, lost in the shuffle…. As I recall, the Errol Morris film The Unknown Known didn’t stick around very long, though I probably also ducked it because it’s a documentary and I simply don’t find many of them visually distinctive enough to justify increasingly high theater admission prices. But I can say that this one is certainly worthy of adding to your online or rental queue. Its look at the Machiavellian soul of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scarier than a slasher film and oilier than West Texas.

The very title boots us down a slippery slope. Remember when—in the middle of hearings on Monica Lewinsky-- Bill Clinton confounded wordsmiths with his statement, “It depends upon what your definition of is, is?” Clinton is a paragon of clarity compared to Rumsfeld, who defined the “unknown known” as “things you thought you know that you didn’t know.” This tips us off immediately that Rumsfeld is a different breed of cat than the last Secretary of Defense Morris interviewed: Robert McNamara. In Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog of War (2004), McNamara admitted that Vietnam was a mistake. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Rumsfeld confessional on Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the body armor conflab, or anything else. What we get is something more frightening—an obviously brilliant man whose arrogance and ideology led him to abuse the English language rather than consider that he might have erred. Think upon that statement. Who among us has not been spectacularly wrong on occasion? Not Rumsfeld—at least not in his mind. His explanation for the reason we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? “An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” If such a statement doesn’t chill you, ponder upon Morris’s follow-up query as to whether such a belief was carte blanche to pursue any belief at any time as if evidence was irrelevant. Rumsfeld has a standard response whenever he paints himself into a corner: “You’re chasing the wrong rabbit on this one.”

In many ways, Rumsfeld was prepped for such obfuscating arrogance. Like many rightwing ideologues, he came to power (U.S. Congress 1963-69) in opposition to the counterculture and social change movements of the Sixties—as befitted a 50s-bred conservative (Eagle Scout, World War II, Princeton, Georgetown Law). His big break came when Nixon appointed him to head the Office of Economic Opportunity and then as ambassador to NATO. Like Nixon, Rumsfeld recorded everything he thought or did. Although Rumsfeld dismisses personal tapings as nothing more than organizing thoughts in progress, the 20,000+ sharply worded memos he sent as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense (2001-06) instead suggest an inflated sense of self-importance and, perhaps, a dash of Nixonian paranoia. (Rumsfeld also served as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff and then his Secretary of Defense from 1975-77. He also mentored Dick Cheney!)

Part of Errol Morris’ brilliance lies with his ability to stay in the background rather than grandstanding like Michael Moore. He allows us to hear (and often see via cutouts and superimposed script) Rumsfeld’s own words. And what words they are. Rumsfeld is, at turns, erudite and dissembling. He is clearly a highly intelligent individual, but also one so enamored with his own cleverness that he occasionally outwits himself. The film ends with Rumsfeld unable to decipher correctly his own “unknown known” formulation or explain why he agreed to be interviewed—a fitting end for one who was fired in 2006 after he ran out of excuses.

Morris’ documentary is equal parts compelling and chilling. Not since Henry Kissinger have we seen a figure of such intellect guided by such an amoral compass. I can’t promise you will enjoy this film, but I can state that it’s an object lesson in why so many American citizens are cynical about politics. It’s also a testament on how a skilled director can document without preaching. Morris is like a polished prosecutor who allows the accused to convict himself.—Rob Weir

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