The Unknown Known
Directed by: Errol Morris
Starring: Donald Rumsfeld and Errol Morris
The latest Errol Morris documentary, about the political life and times of Donald Rumsfeld, is an intentionally infuriating and vague work. With the former Secretary of Defense’s onslaught of non-answers, excuses, digressions and nervous smirks, Morris depicts a genuine heart of dishonesty and blithe unawareness.
The Unknown Known is not about a documentarian skewering one of the most notorious figures of the George W. Bush years, which is why I think many will be perplexed at how free Rumsfeld is to run away with many of the questions. The structure of the documentary almost seems to play with that audience expectation, beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then switching to Rumsfeld’s political career before returning to that post-9/11 time period.
During much of his vast and varied career in various administrations, Rumsfeld sent out thousands upon thousands of memos. They were so numerous that he himself calls them “snowflakes.” These memos, several of which Rumsfeld reads out loud during the documentary, strike at the quirky heart of his professional persona. He sent a memo to Condoleza Rice telling her to stop contradicting his orders in front of White House staff, even threatening to go tattle on her to W. if she didn’t stop. Another snowflake sent to a high-ranking military official simply had dictionary definitions of “guerilla warfare” and “insurgency” attached.
It’s that snideness, and in Rumsfeld’s often dismissive take on his involvement in Bush’s administration that is this film’s true subject. There are standard glimpses at archive photos and news footage to pair with or contradict his statements, but Morris often lets him ramble instead of chiming in. The director uses long overhead shots of empty ocean and swampland over several of Rumsfeld’s dictations, cutting to him to capture a particular posture or body tic. He sometimes leans too heavily on time lapses of Washington DC, many of which seem as if they were cut out of the House of Cards opening credits.
Rumsfeld is a baffling, contradictory subject, able to conjure up powerful prose and emotions when talking about aiding at the scene of the Pentagon on 9/11 and visiting wounded veterans but then eluding his share of the blame for the handling of the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hearing him casually talk about the torture practices he authorized at Guantanamo Bay after making a big deal about waterboarding not being one of those methods is, to me, more revealing about his perception of himself than grilling him would have been.
To hear Rumsfeld talk about how the late 20th and early 21st centuries went down is to hear a barrage of verbiage meant to conceal or avoid blame. He uses the phrase “failure of imagination” to describe how the Department of Defense failed to predict both the attacks of September 11 and Pearl Harbor. Later, he uses “failure of intelligence” to describe the absence of WMDs in Iraq.
Morris hones in on Interchangeable phrases like that just as much as the memos, suggesting an overwrought bureaucracy that would not be out of place in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. He plays recordings of the memos in overlapping succession and also lingers on his silences, creating a wall of beguiling bullshit that even Rumsfeld seems to be occasionally quieted by. Danny Elfman’s score adds hints of menace behind his statements, giving a shadow to his straight-faced and even slightly jovial demeanor.
Much of The Unknown Known focuses on exposing the language of deceit rather than confronting the truths that are being concealed. Often-basic words (like assassinate or torture) are thrown on the screen as Rumsfeld says them, emphasizing his rapid-fire way of talking around questions. Though the Rumsfeld that spawned galvanizing headlines during the War on Terror shows up in archive footage, the man Morris is talking to is often oblivious, more willing to quibble over semantics than confront his own actions.