During the course of Errol Morris’ fascinating Donald Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld, in an interview setting, tries to expand on some of his linguistic peculiarities. For example, there’s the “known known,” which is a thing that we know we know.
Then there’s the “known unknown,” which is something we don’t know but we know we don’t know it. Maybe, for the layperson, that’s akin to where you left your keys after a long day: They’re in the house somewhere, you just don’t know where.
Then there’s the “unknown known,”the things you think you know that it turns out you did not know—like, say, an exit strategy for the war in Iraq. And because Rumsfeld is Rumsfeld, at some point in the movie he changes the definition of the unknown known.
Watching the former two-time Secretary of Defense twist himself into knots as he answers the dozens of questions Morris throws at him from off camera, one thing becomes clear: Donald Rumsfeld is the unknown known. We think we know him, but we don’t. His answers change. He dodges questions.
He says the U.S. should not assassinate a foreign leader (in this case, Saddam Hussein), but suggests that invading a country in order to facilitate regime change is perfectly acceptable, even if the leader ultimately ends up dead.
One would think a man who parries as much as Rumsfeld, at some point, would collapse in exhaustion—yet he seems to revel in it. He appears confident that the choices he made as President George W. Bush’s defense secretary were correct, and the only thing he thinks went wrong—and this is speculation based on watching him reverse himself over and over in 102 minutes—was that Bush didn’t accept his resignation after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Morris’ task is a tough one, and he rises to it, but ultimately we’re left with Rumsfeld’s words and memos—nicknamed “snowflakes” because of the volume that fluttered from his various offices over the course of his career. In fact, Rumsfeld believes everything he’s saying. Whether the things he says are wrong or outright lies or bathed in years of fuzzy memories doesn’t matter. He says something and it is therefore true. He doesn’t believe what he’s said because he’s stupid or evil (though his critics may argue over evil); he believes these things because he’s made the decision to believe them.
Take, for example, an exchange Morris and Rumsfeld have over whether Saddam Hussein gave aid to al Qaeda or was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Rumsfeld tells Morris no one in the Bush White House thought Hussein was involved.
Cut to archival footage of a 2003 press conference in which a reporter says there’s no link between Iraq, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Rumsfeld says, “And Abraham Lincoln was short,” before launching into a rebuttal of the reporter’s reasoning.
That’s the kind of person Errol Morris is dealing with. It’s like Donald Rumsfeld is retconning his second stint as Secretary of Defense.
One of the things Morris, as a filmmaker, excels at is illuminating his subject. In this case, Donald Rumsfeld emerges as impenetrable, and he wants it that way. How else can one explain the different answers to the same questions, whether those questions are derived from snowflakes, old press conferences or the Morris/Rumsfeld interview?
At the end of the movie, Morris asks Rumsfeld, “Why are you doing this [film]? Why are you talking to me?”
There’s a pause before Rumsfeld answers, “That is a vicious question. I’ll be darned if I know.”
But he knows. He wants to control the information, or at least have a say in how it’s disseminated. No player with an ego that big is going to stay mum on the Iraq War (see also R.J. Cutler’s The World According to Dick Cheney).
Whether viewers will enjoy The Unknown Known depends on how much they’re still wrapped in Iraq, September 11 and the Bush Administration. “Enjoy” might be the wrong word, but Morris gets at one of the things that makes Rumsfeld so powerful: The guy has charisma, and a ton of it.
It’s enjoyable to watch him debate Morris. It’s enjoyable hearing him read a snowflake addressed to Condoleezza Rice informing her that her calls to Pentagon staffers are unwelcome and outside the chain of command. It’s enjoyable to hear Rumsfeld call reporters’ questions stupid.
Just remember the root of all these conversations is nearly 4,500 dead Americans and more than 500,000 dead Iraqis. File that under “known known.”
Dir. Errol Morris; feat. Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris (PG-13)
Opens April 11 at the Santikos Bijou
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