The Unknown Known Review

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Documentarian Errol Morris fixes his gaze on the architect of the War On Terror and Iraq War, Donald Rumsfeld.


In a famous comment on intelligence, then-US Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld posited there are “knowns knowns” and “known unknowns”. “But there are also unknown unknowns — ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Rumsfeld himself could further be considered an ‘unknown known’.

Rumsfeld was advisor to four Presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Dubya, the glaring absentee Bush The First, who couldn’t bear him. He was twice Pentagon boss as Defence Secretary and the chief architect of the War On Terror and Iraq War. As anyone who watched his daily press briefings on Iraq will recall, Rumsfeld likes playing word games, smiling unnervingly with gasp-inducing hubris as he evades and obfuscates.

Now past 80, and while shilling his memoir, he agreed to be filmed direct-to-camera— they never learn, do they? — and clearly thinks he is dictating history. Errol Morris is a deceptively compliant off-camera interlocutor, encouraging Rumsfeld’s show-off personality, inviting him to read, indeed perform, choice selections from the blizzard of memoranda Rumsfeld cutely calls his “snowflakes”. They tell a story of ambition, paranoia and obsession.

In Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog Of War he encountered a reflective Robert McNamara, the US Secretary Of Defence in the ’60s, who expressed doubts, regrets and lessons learned from his experience and decisions he made in the Vietnam War. Rumsfeld apparently has never lost sleep over his decisions, shrugging off various atrocities and the post-invasion snafu of Iraq with “stuff happens”.

It’s neatly done, cleverly structured (and wittily scored by Danny Elfman), letting Rumsfeld hoist himself by his own petard, his constant contradictions exposed by archive material and clips. Ultimately this is more of a piece with Morris’ Tabloid (about a former beauty queen’s Mormon sex slave tale) than The Fog Of War, delusion featuring large. Unfortunately Rumsfeld deluded quite a few people. This is a gripping cat-and-mouse game in which the Cheshire cat that is Rumsfeld fades to a sinister, terrifying grin.

Dedicated to Morris’ champion, Roger Ebert, who would be proud, this is a provocative, revelatory and disturbing film.