Film Review: ‘The Unknown Known’


SUBJECT: What You Know

There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are unknown unknowns.
But there are also unknown knowns—that is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.”

These, perhaps more than any others, are the words by and for which former Secretary of Defense, presidential advisor and four-term congressman Donald Rumsfeld has come to be known.  A seemingly inoffensive assertion that nonetheless arguably, given a second look, implicitly and insidiously circles back on itself. In Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, the phrase constitutes, for the filmmaker, a perfect description of his subject: an “unknown known” who, at the end of 33 hours of conversation pared down to less than two, is as frustratingly elusive as ever.

Morris’s portrait, drawn of and from Rumsfeld’s own words over a half-century of public service, in the form of selections from his “snowflakes,” or short memos, leaves even the legendarily meticulous and indefatigable filmmaker unable to fully untangle the complex web his generally agreeable and responsive—but selectively evasive—subject weaves.  “It’s not as though there’s this hidden Rumsfeld I didn’t capture,” explains Morris, as quoted by David Stevens in a biography for “I think I captured the real Rumsfeld and it’s there on display. Sometimes the power of an interview—often, in my view—comes from things that are not said.” There’s certainly plenty of that, although there is also no dearth of information, laid out with a master filmmaker, documentarian, historian (with a university degree) and scholar’s hand.

Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“Morris prefers characters who are puzzling,” notes Stevens. “One of Morris’ recurring themes is the powerful contrasts between how his subjects view themselves, and how audiences view them.” And, as the one-time New York private dick (experience Morris credits for his ability to suss out people and their motives/motivations) builds a case, a recurring motif, and continual fascination, is watching, spellbound, as the earnestly, guilelessly persistent Morris slowly, unerringly—and, figuratively speaking, fatally—forces the subject to face the aggregated evidence.

Or . . . not.  For unlike the subject of his Oscar-winning 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara—in which Morris also employed his famous “Interrotron,” a device that enables both subject and interviewer to look at each other while also looking into the camera, so that the viewer always feels directly engaged—Rumsfeld is not only not haunted by what Morris suggests were “mistakes”; he firmly believes in everything he did, and, moreover, seems to believe he can persuade Morris and everyone else.

As in The Fog of War, the cinematography—here, as there, by Robert Chappell—and music (here by Danny Elfman, winner of twenty-five BMI Film & TV Awards) set the mood; Variety called the film “coolly hypnotic.” The two elements play off each other, much like Rumsfeld and Morris: the music intense, pulsating, mysterious; the visuals bright, sharp, aggressive.

Settling in for the screening, with the DC metro area having finally said farewell to the white, fluffy stuff and its concomitant shoveling, it was mildly jarring (if also, on second thought, amusing) to be assaulted by “snowflakes”: Rumsfeld’s name for the tens of thousands of short memos he wrote during the Bush administration, so called because they were on white paper. How many, from the start of his career?  “There’ve gotta be millions.”

Sounds almost . . . obsessive.  Indeed, wasn’t he, in his pursuit of a war with Iraq?  Rumsfeld is adamant and incredulous: with U.S. planes flying over Iraq being shot at, his reaction was reasonable, his actions were logical, rational. Taking a lesson from Pearl Harbor, Rumsfeld calls our failure to anticipate it “a failure of imagination. We didn’t realize they were capable of doing what they were capable of doing.” He did not, he tells Morris, want to be testifying before Congress for “another Pearl Harbor post mortem,” adding: “I simply had read enough history that I worried.”  (For his part, Morris “was very scared by” that “imagination” line, he later told a reporter. “Are you supposed to just imagine anything? And act on it?”)

OK.  So then, given your determination that the U.S. not be caught unawares again, “How do you think they got away with 9/11?  It seems amazing, in retrospect,” observes Morris.  “Everything seems amazing in retrospect,” returns Rumsfeld.  There are innumerable possibilities out there.  . . . You simply favor some possibilities over others.  . . .  And the penalties can be enormous.”

Here films and photos—from vibrant color shots of a young Osama bin Laden with his family, to the grainy black-and-white ones of the terrorist and his confederates in his Abbottabad hideout—are dropped onto or emerge or burst from the screen helter-skelter, like pieces of a kaleidoscopic mosaic. Indeed, a sumptuous treasury of videos, stills and audio recordings illustrate or amplify the conversation throughout the film, using a range of sophisticated digital, visual and audio effects. (Kudos to Steven Hathaway, who also edited Morris’s 2008 Berlin International Film Festival’s Silver Bear-winning Standard Operating Procedure.)

“Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes,” says Rumsfeld. But: “If you wish peace, prepare for war.” He recalls being called into Vice President Cheney’s office with the Saudi ambassador, who wanted the United States to take out the Iraqi president who, according to the intel, was at Dora Farms in southern Baghdad.“We were so sure that by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, we would avert war.”

Again, superb visuals, as dozens of colorful memos are slapped or scroll by on the screen in succeeding montages: typewritten, handwritten, computer-generated, each true to its time, as Rumsfeld describes the process of producing them, from the early dictaphones to the modern keyboard, each, he tells Morris, going through several drafts. As photos of his wife Joyce and family appear, Rumsfeld recalls proposing, the deep affection bringing a warm smile.

The smile never fades, even when Morris introduces evidence of less congenial—and outright antagonistic—relationships. In a “Nixon tapes” audio clip, his service in Richard Nixon’s cabinet is the subject of discussion by Nixon, H.R. Haldeman and Henry Kissinger, who—seeing the rising young star as a potential political threat—talk in unflattering terms of finding a way to dump him. Rumsfeld smiles benignly.“Hey, we all say things we wish we hadn’t said.”

To Morris’s suggestion that personality differences and clashes were at the root of the staff shake-ups, Rumsfeld holds firm: it was simply a matter of practical considerations. “Maybe Shakespeare got it wrong,” offers Morris dryly. “Maybe so,” agrees Rumsfeld, then follows with an unwitting gem that lovers and scholars of the Bard should put in their purse: “It was a different time.”

When the subject turns to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Rumsfeld for the first time betrays a hint of emotion as he recalls (and we see) the final evacuation, the desperation of the families who clawed and screamed at the departing planes. But it is so brief, as to barely scratch the surface. Is there a lesson here? asks Morris. “Some things work out, some things don’t,” says Rumsfeld finally. “I guess that’s a lesson.” And the Beirut bombing? There’s a lesson here, too: “In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target.”

Rumsfeld himself could be all too on-target, and frighteningly prescient. In an observation that is at once shocking, dismaying and sobering, in a 1980s—1980s!—video he expresses profound, even unqualified pessimism about the possibility of peace in the Middle East. His 1983 handshake with Hussein “became almost iconic, my shaking hands with this brutal dictator.” Swayed by the continuous panoply of praise and celebration put on by his minions, observes Rumsfeld, Hussein “almost became a caricature of himself,” believing, in effect, his own publicity.

But Rumsfeld himself wasn’t above self-aggrandizement, as Morris shows us in a smooth segue, asking him to read a scathing “snowflake” telling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with whom he had a notoriously testy relationship (and your critic is putting it in schoolyard terms here) to, in effect, stick to her own business and stop sticking her nose in his—or he’ll report her to the President. (Time for a time-out?)

What about those Al-Quaeda prisoners who were tortured at Guantanamo? Rumsfeld asserts that nobody was waterboarded (“Let me put a little different cast on that,” he laughs) at Guantanamo. Well, maybe the CIA did, with three prisoners, but never at Guantanamo. At which the screen fills with official findings and newspaper articles reporting the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo. Rumsfeld acknowledges that there was some “enhanced interrogation,” and that he approved some, to obtain information that could either prevent acts of terror or save soldiers’ lives, but disapproved others.

What about those WMDs? “The absence of evidence,” says Rumsfeld, suddenly turning Buddha-like, “is not evidence of absence.” Thus, says Morris, your argument is: “Just because we can’t find any evidence that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction.”  Which seems to temporarily stump the filmmaker. (He would subsequently take the matter up with astronomer Martin Rees, who has become associated with the phrase, “hoping to get some additional insight into his use of” it, but still without resolution, according to a recent New York Times Opinionator blog.)

downloadYour reporter sees it, however, in another possible light. Is this another case—not just of Rumsfeld’s facility with a phrase (as in those “unknown knowns” and “known unknowns,” which Morris also cites to Rees) but—as when he called our failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor “a failure of imagination”—of a willingness to too quickly sacrifice serious analysis for simplistic smoothness?

(A side note: As in most things, intent and context are everything. At a talkback with scholars following a recent performance of Theater J’s The Admission, in which there is no visible physical evidence for an alleged massacre of Arab Palestinians by Jewish Israelis in 1948, one of the speakers, who is Jewish, said that “to say that there is no evidence that it happened, is not to say that it didn’t happen.” Another way of saying “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—but with a completely different purpose: that of accepting, rather than deflecting, responsibility.)

And what about post-Saddam Iraq? While Rumsfeld had no desire to meet with Hussein, he did want to meet with Tariq Aziz, the Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, “a perfectly rational, logical person.” His memos, splayed across the screen in vivid VfX as he reads them in voice-over, their words spelled out mechanically in electrically vibrant inks, are almost physically graspable as the pages plummet with a violent, stomach-yanking thrust, sucked into what we see as the dark vortex of a garishly colored political Washington.

It was the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal that brought Rumsfeld’s government career to an ignominious close.“I felt that something terrible had happened on my watch,” he says, and handed the President his resignation. Bush refused to accept it, telling him, “That’s not going to solve the problem.” But Rumsfeld felt that he had no choice; in a telling phrase, he “couldn’t find anyone else to blame it on.”

Are you surprised when you go back and read these memos? Rumsfeld doesn’t hesitate. “Oh my goodness, yes!  Sometimes I can’t believe I wrote some of these things.” What about that known-unknown dichotomy?

Let’s just say it looks . . . different to him now.

And for those of us who wondered from the git-go, why in the world would he set himself up for something like this? Rumsfeld has an answer. But it won’t be the one you expect.

Rumsfeld remains—for Morris and for us—the unknown known.

The Unknown Known
Running Time: 1 hour and 43 minutes.

Opens Friday, April 4, 2014 at the Avalon Theatre-5612 Connecticut Avenue, in Washington, DC, , with daily showtimes (no 7:40 Wed) at 12:00, 2:30, 5:00, and 7:40 in Avalon 1.


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