The Unknown Known (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : What can be known from Mr. Rumsfeld?

theunknownknown01 “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”  

– Donald Rumsfeld

  As a man with an illustrating political career, Donald Rumsfeld surely tells many things to amuse or fascinate us in Errol Morris’ new documentary “The Unknown Known”, which I watched on my second(and last) day at 2014 Jeonju International Film Festival. He seems to be ready to answer to anything, and he never becomes aggressive or hostile to several hard questions thrown upon him,  but we only get the sense of something inscrutable behind his amiable smiling face which feels increasingly sneaky as we spend more time with him. Here is the man who bombarded his people with lots of memos during his tenure, and those memos of his, which were jokingly nicknamed “snowflakes”, only seem to lead Morris and us to more bafflement and more uncertainty – even when some of the unclassified ones are read by Rumsfeld himself on the screen.

Nevertheless, we cannot help but watch Rumsfeld talking about himself and his career during the interview. After establishing his political career as a young conservative US Congressman from Illinois, he became a key member of the Nixon administration, but he was not regarded well by Richard Nixon and his inner circle in the White House because they thought he was too friendly with the Washington Post and the New York Times. He was eventually transferred to an oversea post, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise; not long after he began to work at the NATO headquarter in Brussels, the Watergate scandal broke out, and he could easily come back to Washington as a close confidant of Gerald R. Ford, who soon appointed him as the White House Chief of Staff.

And then there was a time when he really could have been on the way to the President of the United States. When Ronald Reagan was about to choose his running mate before the 1980 presidential election, Rumsfeld was ready to receive Reagan’s call but was only told later by Reagan that he chose George H.W, Bush instead, who eventually became the president after Reagan. Showing no particular hard feeling about that crucial moment as describing it, Rumsfeld only seems to be mildly amused when he is asked by Morris about how things could have been turned out differently.

theunknownknown05 During the 1980-90s, Rumsfeld turned his career to business field, and he went through the top positions of several prominent pharmaceutical corporations. In 2001, he was appointed to the Secretary of Defense by George W. Bush, and there is a certain dark irony in the fact that he mentioned the Pearl Harbor attack as a “failure of imagination” in the nation’s defense establishment, not long before 9/11 happened.

As many of you know well, the situation has been getting worse for the American government and its people since that terrible incident. The immediate invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was soon followed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and both wars have cost America trillions of dollars and countless lives of its soldiers. With no clear end in sight, War on Terror has only deteriorated the oversea image of America, and things still do not look that well even after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in 2011.

On the surface, Rumsfeld candidly tells us about his serving time in the Bush administration. It is surely interesting that he was in the Pentagon building when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the building, and it is rather funny that he learned about the president’s decision to invade Iraq only after Dick Cheney notified it to the Saudi Arabian ambassador. In his view, captured terrorists and other detainees could not be regarded as prisoners of war as defined by the Geneva Convention, and he emphasizes to us that the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was a proper place to handle detainees and extract any useful information from them.

theunknownknown02 While he does not deny that he authorized ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to be used at the Guantanamo Camp, he tells us that he was also surprised and disturbed by what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison. He was fully ready to take the responsibility as the Secretary of Defense when the Abu Ghraib scandal shocked not only America but also the whole world, and he offered his resignation twice to the president, but both of his requests were denied(he was eventually fired later).

These things are what most of us already know, and you will not get anything new or significant from Rumsfeld if you expect him to tell more about how America was tumbled into the most disastrous political quagmire since the Vietnam War. He is mostly in good mood in front of camera, and he is a smooth, fluent talker with sharp intelligence despite his age, but there is something obfuscating what we want to know from him while we are watching and listening to him. The more he tells, the less we feel enlightened, so to speak.

Does he really feel any regret or responsibility for what he and his government caused? The camera sometimes focuses on his silent face for a while during the interview, and we naturally wonder about what he is thinking behind his face. At one point, he talks about his personal experience with a wounded solider at Walter Reed hospital, and he becomes a little emotional about that experience as depicting it, but, as watching his face on the screen, I began to wonder whether it was just a superficial attempt to evade Morris’ question. When he is asked about how the invasion of Iraq will be regarded in the future, he only gives a typical banal answer we have heard from so many politicians: “Time will tell”.

theunknownknown04 That maddening obscurity inside Rumsfeld’ face gradually becomes the ambiguous center of the documentary, and the director Errol Morris, who is no stranger to the enigmatic side of humanity as shown from his many acclaimed documentary films including “Gates of Heaven”(1978) and “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”(1997), gives us a confusing but oddly compelling experience while throwing off-camera questions to Rumsfeld more frequently than usual. As Rumsfeld speaking directly to the camera, the crisp images provided by the cinematographer Robert Chappell and various archival records and footages accompany his words from time to time, and Danny Elfman’s elegantly minimalistic score adds extra ambiguity to the mood of the film while signifying little on the surface.

“The Unknown Known” has been compared to Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary “The Fog of War”(2003) by many reviewers, and that is not so surprising considering how they feel so different from each other despite the overlapping areas between them. While there are certainly many things he chooses not to talk about, Robert S. McNamara in “The Fog of War” frankly reveals and reflects on the successes and failures during his political career, and his insightful introspection has a number of valuable lessons to learn for any high-ranking politician in the world. Rumsfeld is surely an interviewee as smart and engaging as McNamara, but, as Morris said, he is “deeply unreflective” while McNamara was “deeply reflective”. He left many memos for something to be learned from them later, but it seems there is nothing much to be learned from them, and his curious obsession with definition of words only blurs what can be possibly revealed from them, as reflected by the recurring image of snowflakes obscuring what is inside a glass ball.

In contrast to McNamara, who operated in a political world with clearly defined lines, Rumsfeld belongs to a different political world where nothing is clear or definite, and only possible lesson implied through the banality of his memos is alarming to say the least. His words can be pretty flexible and bendable in their meanings(“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”), and he and others have conveniently distanced themselves from the consequence while taking no direct responsibility for that – and that may happen again if we are not cautious.

In the end, we are still quite unsure about whether there is anything unknown about Rumsfeld we do not know – or whether there is anything unknown about him that he actually knows while believing he does not know. During the final scene, Morris asks Rumsfeld why he agreed to be interviewed from the beginning. Again, he evades the question with his usual jolly smile: “I’ll be darned if I know.”


1. Morris dedicated this documentary to film critic Roger Ebert, my friend and mentor who had championed Morris’ works since “Gates of Heaven”.

2. Here is the link to “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld”, the recent New York Times article written by Morris.


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1 Response to The Unknown Known (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : What can be known from Mr. Rumsfeld?

  1. S M Rana says:

    Just waiting for this to be available…

    SC: Don’t miss it.

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