“The Unknown Known” grills Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq war snow job

Along with Michael Moore, Errol Morris is arguably America’s preeminent working documentarian. Morris’ recent nonfiction films include 2003’s Academy Award winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and 2008’s Berlin International Film Festival Jury Grand Prize winner Standard Operating Procedure. The former sought to explain why America, by invading Iraq, went “down the same rabbit hole again” (as Morris put it during his Oscar acceptance speech) through an investigation of the so-called “Mac the Knife,” who was U.S. secretary of defense during much of the Vietnam War. The second doc examined torture committed by Americans at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Morris’ latest documentary, The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld, is a sort of synthesis and updating of the two, as the master moviemaker focuses his “Interrotron” on the man who was defense secretary during the Iraq war and is suspected of sharing responsibility for torturing prisoners from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo and for other crimes against humanity. The Interrotron is a recording device similar to a teleprompter that enables the interviewee to appear to be making direct eye contact with the interviewer, and hence with the audience. The term enhances the “fly on the wall” nature of Q&As, evoking the words “interrogation,” “interview” and, appropriately in Rumsfeld’s case, “terror.”

The Unknown Known follows Rumsfeld, through his career as a four-term congressman in the 1960s to his stints as a behind-the-scenes strings puller for presidents Nixon and Ford, serving the latter as America’s youngest secretary of defense. It focuses on Rumsfeld’s return to that post (by then as America’s oldest defense secretary) during George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency at the behest of his longtime crony, Dick Cheney. In this doc the “unknown” becomes “known” largely through the 20,000 memos the verbose Rumsfeld circulated during his six years as Bush’s Pentagon hit man.

Morris effectively uses filmmaking’s audio-visual language to express ideas and break the tedium of talking heads. He opens with beautiful black & white, time-lapse cinematography of Washington, D.C., and repeatedly uses a snowflake theme to make his case against Rumsfeld and his snow job. Another visual metaphor Morris deploys is images of the ocean, giving form to the gabby Rumsfeld’s sea of words.

Morris’ cleverest use of cinematic symbolism, however, is aural, as he overlays one track of Rumsfeld speaking over another, creating the impression of a literal double talker. For instance, sidestepping the Geneva Conventions, Rumsfeld refers to “detainees” instead of “prisoners of war.” Morris includes a clip of the 2002 press conference wherein the Orwellian Rumsfeld philosophized about “known knowns,” “unknown knowns” and, referring to the lack of hard evidence regarding Iraq’s purported WMDs, “There are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

At times Morris cuts from a lie Rumsfeld tells the Interrotron to footage of a previous statement by him, in order to point out self-serving contradictions. Rumsfeld critics may feel that the interrogator isn’t as hard hitting as he could be with the elusive subject, for example, not pressing Rummy on his shaking hands on Dec. 20, 1983, with Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein dictator, who was at the time using chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians. Morris’s disdain for his subject has actually been far more palpable in interviews he has given since completing his doc.

Morris’s final question is, “Why are you talking to me?” Rumsfeld replies, “I’ll be damned if I know.” Perhaps in addition to trying to burnish his image and put his spin on history, a main reason why Rumsfeld agreed to be interviewed on film is to sell copies of his latest book.

In any case, a better question for this man who helped lead our country into a completely unnecessary war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and an incalculable loss of tax dollars contributing to the bankrupting of America is: Why are you smiling? Throughout the documentary he is jocular, even gleeful. I suspect that Donald Rumsfeld is happy because he was never charged with, let alone convicted of, committing war crimes, and walks around a free, very rich man. Why Rumsfeld and his fellow war criminals are allowed to walk around scot-free is truly an unknown known.

The Unknown Known

Director: Errol Morris

PG-13, 2013, 103 mins.




Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.