Unknown Known: The Elusive Donald Rumsfeld

Apr 14, 2014

The Unknown Known takes its title from a 2004 Pentagon memo sent by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The movie plays at the Riviera Theatre in Three Rivers through May 3rd.

He'd later share the information in a press conference, where he discussed his concepts of the "known knowns" -- the things we already know -- and the "known unknowns" -- the things we know we don't know.

The "unknown knowns" referred to things we think we know that we don't really know at all. In the eyes of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, that would include Rumsfeld himself.

This is the second time Morris has done a feature-length profile of a former Secretary of Defense: His Oscar-winning 2003 film The Fog of War focused on Robert McNamara, who held the job during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Even though he never directly apologized for the choices he made, McNamara expressed genuine regret and sorrow about much of what happened during his tenure.

Morris certainly gets none of that from Rumsfeld, with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His mouth forever wavering between a smile, a smirk and a sneer, Rumsfeld continues to promote the party line, clinging to the snappy soundbytes he used a decade ago. "Stuff happens," he reminds us and "freedom is messy."

Instead of a someone doing some heavy-duty soul-searching, Rumsfeld registers here as a man who was less interested in solving problems than he was in figuring out how to present them in the best possible light.

We've all heard the tales about how Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Morris shows us Rumsfeld combing through dictionaries to find the proper definitions of terms like "guerrilla warfare" and "unconventional" as Iraq descends into chaos after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It's as if nailing down the right terminology will somehow change the course of the wars or restore stability to the region.

Rumsfeld ridicules Morris for what he calls an "obsession with Iraq and Saddam," but don't weep for Morris: He gets a subtle sort of revenge. Again and again, Morris exposes Rumsfeld's extremely selective memory and his tendency to try to intellectualize situations instead of dealing with them in a straightforward manner. These are tactics that Rumsfeld has apparently honed for almost half a century.

Morris takes us back to the early 1960s when Rumsfeld was elected to Congress, then charts his steady rise to ever-higher circles of power through the Nixon Administration. Having managed to crawl away from the wreckage of Watergate unscathed, Rumsfeld became the youngest-ever Secretary of Defense during the Ford Administration and tried -- futilely, as it turned out -- to position himself as a viable vice presidential candidate, first for Ford in 1976 and then for Reagan in 1980.

His hunger for the spotlight is finally rewarded in 2003 when he becomes the designated "voice of the war," conducting press conferences that are as much about promoting himself as they are about delivering news. No matter what your political affiliation, it's a bit unsettling to see clips from these appearances a decade later and to watch Rumsfeld tease and taunt reporters instead of answering crucial questions.

In the final analysis, The Unknown Known provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of being blinded by the spotlight and about losing sight of the big picture.

Morris gives Rumsfeld ample opportunity to tell us his story and what he thinks it means. As for whether or not the man actually believes everything he says, that's a question that will probably remain unanswered.