The Mind-Bending Twister of ‘The Unknown Known’

The Unknown Known represents Errol Morris’s attempts to understand the complexities of 81-year-old Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford. Despite the extended character portrait, however, the known still remains unknown at the end of this documentary.

No one else could have created this portrait of such a divisive political figure. Morris is well-suited to handling complex subjects, as he has shown with The Fog of WarStandard Operating Procedure, and other documentaries. Many of his usual techniques appear here: stylized text and archival materials, clean interview settings, recording device shots, a haunting Danny Elfman score. Morris also engages his interview subject from behind the camera throughout the documentary.

Rumsfeld confounds. He comes across as precise yet vague, pithy yet desultory, likeable yet maybe not so much. The interview scene subtly suggests these disparities. Rumsfeld sits against a dark backdrop with mostly bright lighting, except for the shadow that appears across the left side of his face. Those with strong opinions about Rumsfeld — either way — will probably see their opinions affirmed.

Those seeking definitive answers and explanations about what happened during the Iraq war, however, will be disappointed. The documentary more so chronicles Rumsfeld’s career against the backdrops of war and political upheavals. His career unfolds through a combination of Rumsfeld’s own commentary and archival material montages.

A type of archival material central to the story’s unfolding is Rumsfeld’s voluminous memos. He suggests that he dictated a “million” of them during his political career. They serve as an archive of his work and ideas, and the archive is so vast that even Rumsfeld himself fails to remember what he said or meant in some of them.

The toughest sequence addresses the “torture memos” about treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, which Morris addressed in Standard Operating Procedure. Rumsfeld discusses signing off on some “approved” procedures but not others. The list itself is horrifying, and the decision of which ones to “approve” or “discourage” seems just as horrifying.

The pictures of these torture tactics became the spectacles of horror in Standard Operating Procedure, so it seems fitting that Morris would take the opportunity to ask, “Why do you think the pictures did it?” Rumsfeld’s answer about their being “disgusting and revolting” feels almost too obvious.

Yet Rumsfeld plays himself as seemingly unaware of the extremes in torture happening in the prisons. He claims at one point, “Zero were waterboarded at Guantanamo. The military never waterboarded anybody in an interrogation.”

Morris takes several opportunities to ask Rumsfeld questions off-camera throughout the documentary. Rumsfeld remains measured in his responses, even as Morris’s tone becomes more incredulous.

For example, Morris asks, “How do you think they got away with 9/11? It seems amazing in retrospect.”

With a small smile Rumsfeld replies, “Everything seems amazing in retrospect.”

Morris also asks, “Was it failure of imagination, or failure to look at the intelligence that was available?” His question refers to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how it caught the United States by surprise.

Rumsfeld looks at the camera for a moment and then pauses. The documentary then cuts to another shot, which raises a question of what Rumsfeld actually answered.

Ever the spin master, Rumsfeld remains full of platitudes and witticisms in both his comments with Morris and his interviews with the press. For example, he claims, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

That kind of thinking informs the rhetorical gymnastics that inspired this documentary’s title. The rhetoric comes from a spiel Rumsfeld delivered to the press and a memo he wrote. It presents a series of oxymorons that supposedly explain how intelligence works. The phrase “unknown knowns” refers to “the things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Near the documentary’s end, Morris asks a question many people might be asking themselves: “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?”

Rumsfeld’s reply this time is just as vague as his other ones.

“That is a vicious question. I’ll be darned if I know.”

Morris ends the film with a rather poignant note: “In memory of Roger Ebert 1942-2013.” Ebert died a year ago this month. He is still missed.

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