Donald Rumsfeld’s smile is a strange thing—more of a smirk, cold, self-satisfied, signaling a point he feels he has won. “Chalk that one up for me,” he says at one point during the extended interview that makes up Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known. Courtesy of Morris’s trademark Interrotron, Rumsfeld looks directly at us. He is crisply dressed and primed for battle as he reads from the hundreds of thousands of memos (he calls them snowflakes) that he dictated over the course of his long career in public life. “Good grief—that’s a pile of stuff,” he comments in his folksy way after reading a chilling list of all the “enhanced interrogation techniques” he signed off on for Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
Morris interviewed Rumsfeld for 35 hours and the resulting film covers a career that stretched from the administrations of Nixon (who thought him self-serving) and Ford for whom he was the youngest ever Secretary of Defense—to George W. Bush. But the heart of the film lies in the build-up to and conduct of the Iraq War. The Unknown Known bears obvious comparison with Morris’s The Fog of War (03), which placed Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam war, in the hot seat. The two films bookend another disastrous war—evidence of both our national failure to learn from past mistakes and the diminished stature of our warmongers. While McNamara was a man of some moral seriousness and vision, facing off with his conscience and grappling with self-knowledge, Rumsfeld seems a smaller figure: ferociously ambitious and wily but mysteriously opaque, even absent. The more he talks, the less you feel you know, despite the fact that his every thought was put on paper.
The film opens with, and returns several times to, Rumsfeld’s well-known riff about knowledge. To paraphrase: there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Rumsfeld’s professed concern is with the last—with those events that are largely unavoidable because they fall outside of what we can imagine. Among these, he suggests in a 2003 press briefing, was the question of whether Iraq really had WMDs, adding to the reporters’ collective incredulity with a follow-up comment: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Rumsfeld is drawn to paradoxes and quibbling definitions. As he reads from his memos the camera prowls through seemingly endless library stacks of files and typewritten words pop up and dance around the screen, swirling into a black hole at one point, at another into an endless ocean. In many ways this is a film about language—its use and (mainly) misuse.
Asked about the conflation of Saddam and Bin Laden he comments mildly: “Oh I don’t think so . . . I don’t think the American people were confused about that.” Cut to a clip of him insisting on the connection. The litany of Rumsfeld’s disastrous mistakes is familiar: his insistence that there would be no occupation (“I don’t do quagmires”), that there was no insurgency (“Define insurgency”), no torture, and a sufficient number of troops. His conviction that he was right survived overwhelming evidence to the contrary, suggesting that the most relevant quadrant of knowledge is the one left out of Rumsfeld’s schema, and serving as the film’s title. The unknown known: those things that are readily apparent yet not acknowledged. Does Rumsfeld really believe what he says? Does he really lack all reflective ability? The absence of evidence of any such capacity may not be evidence of its absence.
The film leaves the question open while digging into something stranger: Rumsfeld’s extraordinary and profound indifference to his own credibility. In the most striking example, Morris asks if the enhanced interrogation techniques Rumsfeld authorized “migrated” from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib where, without oversight, they led to “incredible abuse.” Rumsfeld categorically denies it, pointing to an extensive investigation by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger: “Anyone who reads the reports knows that that is not the case.” But Morris actually has the report with him and he reads from it—techniques did indeed migrate from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib. “I think that’s a fair assessment,” says Rumsfeld. The camera holds on him for a long pause, but there is nothing on his face.
Why doesn’t Morris lean in for the kill? The answer, I think, is that Morris’s interest actually is in the evasions, the self-deception, the bland hollowness that he lays out here. Rumsfeld’s habits of mind played out on a global stage, affecting the lives of millions. As Rumsfeld himself points out, we still live in a world shaped by his actions and decisions. Though he succeeds in foiling Morris’s every attempt to get beneath the surface, the film shows something important. It succeeds in making what had become familiar strange again, as it should be.
But although the film has explanatory power, it remains a rather intellectual exercise. It is a daunting challenge to make a compelling film about a subject who is so hidden and who inspires so little empathy. Morris’s commentary comes in the form of stunning images, visual effects, and a truly beautiful score (by Danny Elfman) that lend the film what sometimes seems like icing on something less than a cake. The Unknown Known is revealing, but what it reveals is emptiness.