I will admit that when I read that Errol Morris was going to do a movie on former Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld, I was perhaps more excited than usual. Morris had not only won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his interview of former John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, but he also tore into the Bush Administration and their handling of the Abu Ghraib scandal in his stunning documentary, Standard Operating Procedure. So here, I thought, would be his chance to really hammer Rumsfeld on what he covered in Standard Operating Procedure and take shots at the ill-conceived Iraq War that he presided over before being sacked in December 2006. And so we are presented with The Unknown Known, whose name was taken from an enigmatic statement Rumsfeld made at one of his many entertaining press conferences : "...because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."
To my surprise, Morris took a different approach. Morris (well, his voice) is far more present in this documentary than maybe any of his others. He walks Rumsfeld through his early days as a congressman and working in the Nixon and Ford administrations including even some unflattering audio recorded by Nixon and H.R. Haldeman about his ambitions and inability to be a team player. We even get Rumsfeld talking about his wife and the impact she has made on his life. Pretty flowery stuff, really and somewhat unexpected. As the narrative moves along and we get to the Iraq War and the justifications made for it when it was repeatedly shown that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, we don't see any of the contrition we saw from McNamara in The Fog of War, one of the key elements that film is so powerful. What we do get the same smarmy sheen complete with snarky grin that we have seen from Rumsfeld in prior years. Morris peppers him with questions and counters his answers with other facts or statements, but Rumsfeld always has a response, going so far as when challenging Morris on a question, that he literally and proudly chalks one up for himself.
While to me watching Rumsfeld is fairly difficult, he does make for a fascinating character to watch, even through his patented squint and his puckered face looking like those old Looney Tunes cartoons where the characters swallow a mouth full of alum powder. He sticks to his convictions, be they good or bad and is never rattled by Morris or his line of questions. While a great amount of the film is centered on the tens of thousands of memos he created and sent in his tenure as Secretary of Defense, many of which Rumsfeld reads aloud. Morris pounces on points from these from time to time and we see the few back-and-forths between the two occur within semantic arguments of what was and is and might be somewhere down the line. I can't imagine that Rumsfeld was an easy nut to crack. After all, Morris had already done a whole movie questioning the key policies and strategies he was responsible for as Secretary of Defense. And at the very end of the film when Morris asks him, "Why are you doing this, why are you talking to me?" he responds nonchalantly, "I don't know."
Believe me when I say this, I never in a million years thought that I would say that I am thankful that someone did a feature-length film starring Donald Rumsfeld. Errol Morris has the uncanny ability to take something that you think you would never see or would want to see and make it so fascinating that you not only watch it once, but you watch it multiple times, looking for nuances in questions and manipulations in his responses, besting his subjects or at least getting more out of them that even they might suspect that they are giving.
The Unknown Known is not Morris' strongest work, but when you put that in perspective alongside the rest of his ouevre, that is still speaking volumes about the quality of this film. Morris is the finest documentarian working in film in my opinion (and I'm not sure you would find many who would argue). His films are exceedingly compelling and his patented flourishes - using reenactments, the scores of Philip Glass, John Kusiak and Danny Elfman and his wonderful creation, the Interrotron - create some of the most unique film viewing experiences I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of. This film is no exception and is worthy of everyone's attention. Watch two master's of their craft go head-to-head and see who comes out the victor.
Dedicated to the memory of Morris' good friend and revered film critic Roger Ebert, Morris created a film that Ebert likely would have heaped praise and many a thumbs-up for. This film hits stores on DVD and Blu-Ray July 1. Don't miss your chance to see something that is layered and thought-provoking. Far too few films are these days.