Over the last 10 years, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been preoccupied with the methodology behind warfare, specifically investigating the mismanagement of American armed conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq. With the exception of his fascinating 2010 crime doc Tabloid, his output over the last decade has been a sober postmortem on our recent overseas failures: The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure and now The Unknown Known, which is the best of the bunch. Where his earlier documentaries looked at aspects of the military mindset, his newest feels nearly definitive, putting a face to hawkish policies.
That face belongs to Donald Rumsfeld, who was Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006. Previously, he served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, bearing witness to the conclusion of the Vietnam War. When wars have gone wrong for America over the last 50 years, Rumsfeld has been there. As with Morris’s Fog of War, which was a feature-length interview with 1960s Secretary of State Robert McNamara, The Unknown Known consists mostly of its subject talking. Even-keeled and slightly cocky, Rumsfeld answers Morris’s questions, which range from government policy to how he proposed to his wife. (He wasn’t really interested in getting married, Rumsfeld explains, but it made good sense: He didn’t want her marrying anyone else.)
Considering that he’s such an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, Morris might be expected to demonize his subject. Blessedly, The Unknown Known is far too thoughtful for such a knee-jerk treatment—or, perhaps more accurately, Rumsfeld has too sharp a mind to be railroaded. Instead, we have a glorious battle of wits, with Rumsfeld masterfully responding to his inquisitor, often with direct, considered answers. To be sure, Rumsfeld can be extremely evasive and willfully vague, but what’s remarkable is how often he isn’t. He doesn’t confess to any major mistakes, but he’s candid in explaining his rationale. And although he may not convince you of his motives, there’s little doubt that he convinced himself a long time ago.
As per norm, Morris utilizes his Interrotron, a device that allows his interview subject to look directly at the audience. (The interviewee talks to the camera, but the Interrotron utilizes a two-way mirror so that the subject is actually looking at an image of Morris.) This technique creates a sense of conversational intimacy, and in the case of Rumsfeld it also permits a certain amount of seduction. For those who have forgotten, Rumsfeld was front and center during the Iraq War, the dynamic, divisive star of numerous press conferences where he treated reporters’ questions as great sport. Rumsfeld isn’t nearly so condescending with Morris—he seems to understand that there’s something more permanent about this interview—but he’s also not defensively worrying over his legacy.
Some early reviews of The Unknown Known have expressed frustration that Morris fails to unmask his adversary—that he’s never able to bring Rumsfeld to a moment of soul-searching reflection similar to what occurred with McNamara in The Fog of War, which won the Best Documentary Oscar. This hardly seems like a failing, though. The Unknown Known isn’t about revelation as much as it is about portraiture. What we have on display here are the workings of a formidable intellect—the film is a case study in unbridled self-assurance.
As we learn early on, Rumsfeld would compulsively draw up memos during his years in government, speaking into a Dictaphone to capture his thoughts while they were fresh in his head. Morris has Rumsfeld read some of those memos throughout the course of The Unknown Known, and what they expose is a damn fine writer who had little patience for incompetence or lazy thinking. He fusses over the dictionary definition of terms like “guerilla warfare” and “insurgency” during the Iraq War. He examines the difference between “known knowns” (things we know that we know) and “known unknowns” (things that we know that we don’t know). That last example, which inspired the documentary’s title, is perhaps cited as proof of the insanity of bureaucratic double-speak, but as Rumsfeld explains in the movie, it’s a fundamental tenet of any rational policy toward national defense: trying to best guess what things aren’t being considered as realistic threats that could, in fact, be realistic threats.
The Unknown Known travels through all of Rumsfeld’s public years, from Vietnam to 9/11 to Iraq. (Morris even touches on Rumsfeld’s flirtation with becoming Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980.) Rumsfeld recalls everything with impressive clarity—unless, that is, Morris confronts him with a fact that he doesn’t want to address. (The former Secretary of State asserts that the American people weren’t led to believe by the Bush administration that the invasion of Iraq was launched because Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, even though opinion polls from the time clearly suggest that was the case.) No film in years has produced such a shockingly vivid reminder of what the Bush years felt like: utter confidence, vague contempt, a fiendish skill for playing the PR game in such a way that the administration was guaranteed to come out on top. Rumsfeld “wins” the argument with Morris because he knows how to phrase responses so that his interviewer can’t really rebut them—it’s exactly what he did during those press conferences as well.
You watch The Unknown Known in a bit of a fog, forced to tip your hat to Rumsfeld’s deft handling of language and meaning. The documentary is a reluctant, disturbing tribute to that mastery. You get the sense that Rumsfeld might have been Morris’s white whale—the one man who could finally be taken to task for the failures of the Iraq War. But even he can’t get Rumsfeld to crack. In a way, that’s fitting: What kind of worthy adversary would Rumsfeld be if he was so easy to catch?
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Errol Morris
Starring: Donald Rumsfeld
Release Date: Screening at AFI Fest 2013 in the Special Screenings section