The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris
Released in 2014
Donald Rumsfeld is a genius who found his calling in politics, which explains why he is utterly empty inside. Such is the infuriating thesis at the heart of Errol Morris’ new documentary on the former Secretary of Defense, and Rummy does not break once while staring down the barrel of Morris’ Interrotron. A bunch of times, he does this terrible grin, resembling a skeleton or, as Morris sees it, Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. In a four-part, must-read New York Times series on his research on and time with Rumsfeld, Morris concludes, “I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything. It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all.”
The Unknown Known will madden those who think Morris lobbed softballs at his subject. As far as Rumsfeld goes, what you see is what you get. We get a sense of his intelligence and to what shameful ends he put it to use, but not much more. In place of the catharsis Vietnam SecDef Robert McNamara croaked through in Morris’ similar, Oscar-winning The Fog of War, we get an essay on the weaponization of words and the tenuous justifications for modern warfare. To appreciate this film is to unpack it. For that reason it is a far more intellectually demanding film than The Fog of War, and thus a superior one in my view.
Save for an early recounting of the events of 9/11, Morris structures his film around a chronological run-through of Rumsfeld’s career. Set against a black backdrop, Rumsfeld addresses Morris’ camera in his self-described “cool, measured” way. While Morris smothers a photo montage of Rumsfeld and his wife in sappy music, Rummy retells his marriage proposal in laughably clinical terms: “I was correct. It was a good decision. It just wasn’t part of my plan.” He lights up when talking about himself, such as his behind-the-scenes machinations in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In the former’s case, he ducked out soon enough to avoid Watergate while in the latter’s, Rumsfeld criticizes his old boss’ weaknesses in leadership. In tandem with a fellow named Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld resigned in protest as Chief of Staff, spurring the ensuing “Halloween Massacre” where Ford reshuffled his Cabinet. Rumsfeld got a promotion, to Secretary of Defense, out of it all.
The way Morris cuts together the Halloween Massacre sequence clues us into his complex take on his subject. Superimposed over footage of Rumsfeld’s swearing-in ceremony, newspaper headlines whiz by, all praising, through so-called objective language, Rumsfeld’s ruthlessness in getting what he coveted. They all ostensibly fuel his ego as he strides down the red carpet, with honor guard in tow. The media’s love affair with political drama can be held accountable for incubating a man like Rumsfeld, whose indisputable intelligence benefitted only himself, when all is said and done. The jokes he cracks with the press on the lead-up to the Iraq War humanize him, to an extent, but they disturb more than anything else for we notice a collusion between interviewee and interviewer, as frustration with Rumsfeld’s nonsense evasions cools into inappropriate comradery. If this reading needs further evidence, consider that the other time Morris uses this flying newsprint-over-archive footage approach is with Osama bin Laden, when he descends a mountain with his walking stick and headlines express confusion over his whereabouts. They are both boogeymen made stronger by the noise they leave in their wake.
Throughout the film, Rumsfeld reads aloud a handful of the thousands upon thousands of memos, called “snowflakes,” he wrote during his tenure at the Pentagon. “Subject: Terminology,” he begins, before boring into three terms — “unconventional warfare,” “guerrilla,” “insurgency” — with which he sought to define the Iraq War, precisely because they are vague euphemisms. He boasts how he got rid of unwanted words from the conversation, oblivious to how that approaches Orwell’s Newspeak. He clings to his infamous “unknown unknowns” — things “we don’t know we don’t know,” “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,” et al — as grounds for invading Iraq, sounding like Fred Leuchter, the Holocaust denier Morris interviewed for Mr. Death. He said, after a trip to Auschwitz, “It’s not what I found that convinced me. It was what I didn’t find.”
Rumsfeld gets it right, once. He reminds Morris how, back in 2008, Obama opposed the Patriot Act, indefinite detention and Guantanamo, yet they remain with us to this day. “That validates the decisions made by George W. Bush,” he says in what may be his most humble statement. The bigger and more connected our world becomes, the more grounds there are for suspicion, for actionable “intelligence.” Rumsfeld may be loathed more than most, but his breed will continue to occupy the highest offices. Morris cannot shake the moral void behind those eyes, like when he exclaims, “Wouldn’t it have been better not to go there [Iraq] at all?” and all he gets back is a smile and “I guess time will tell.” But this film comes short of excoriating Rummy for 106 minutes and that is a wise choice, since such polemics are easy and self-evident at this point. What Morris does do is open up this focused but failed probe of a man to capture the rest of America in silent consent. Rumsfeld acts on our country’s worst tendencies, with more intellectual arrogance than anyone else, but he does so because such violence is kind of part of our deal.
3.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.