Article By: Dan Clark
“There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns—that is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.” Those are the confounding words are spoken by Former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld—the subject of Errol Morris’s latest documentary The Unknown Known.
At this point in his career Morris is a seasoned veteran when it comes to this form of talking-head dissection of a controversial political figure. His unique flair and visual flourishes add allure and nuance even with the subject is lacking in both. Rumsfeld’s shell appears too hard for even Morris to fully crack. While The Unknown Known encapsulates the inner workings of an intriguing figure, it does not have the satisfying reflective quality of similar Morris documentaries.
Rumsfeld works as the yin to Robert McNamara’s yang—the subject of Morris’s most acclaimed documentary The Fog of War. McNamara wore the weight of the mishandling of Vietnam like a Scarlet letter of shame, and was willing to admit he had regret for the mistakes that were made. Rumsfeld on the other hand is unremittingly satisfied with his decisions. Although he will admit his record is by no means perfect, he tends to view failure as an inevitability of leadership—insisting that time will be the ultimate decider on the legitimacy of his actions.
Morris examines Rumsfeld entire political career before jumping onto the elephant in the room—the controversial Iraq War. During the onset Morris is more of an observer than a director, allowing Rumsfeld free rein with his remarks. He chooses to wait for the appropriate time to jump in and respond. From his start as promising Congressmen to his work for numerous Presidents including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George W. Bush, Rumsfeld reveals his open communication leadership style. Throughout his tenure he wrote thousands of internal memos, nicknamed ‘snowflakes, about a vast amount of subjects for a vast amount of reasons.
These ‘snowflakes’ provide insight into the psyche of Rumsfeld. They show his obsession with speaking in terms of epigrams. From the titular ‘Unknown Known’ to ‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ to his constant requests for the Pentagon’s definitions of words like ‘insurgency’ and ‘terrorism’. Rumsfeld may barrage you with empty rhetoric but it is clear he chooses the words of that rhetoric carefully.
Still, Morris does attempt to use Rumsfeld’s own words against him on occasion. One of Rumsfeld’s earliest memos indicated his misgivings on US involvement in the Middle East, indicating its swamp like tendencies for any superpower that got involved. More notably was Rumsfeld response to Morris that neither him or the Bush administration ever indicated Iraq had any involvement with 9/11, only to have a jump cut to press conference footage where he states, “And Abraham Lincoln was short.”, when informed about Saddam Hussein denial of his involvement in the terrorist attacks.
Try as he might Rumsfeld is able to bob and weave away from Morris’s greatest haymakers. With his unnervingg disposition, eerily calm smile, and insistent retorts he may even convert some to his side. His words may confound and infuriate those who disagree with his policies, nevertheless they will surely delight those who agree with Rumsfeld. That is where the frustration sets in. How this is similar to cable news esc debate where everyone talks at one another. Two opposing viewpoints are stated with neither side ever really acknowledging the other, and both end up leaving further entrenched into the viewpoints they walked in with.
The Unknown Known has more deflection than reflection, but that deflection is its own form of new understanding. Moments like learning Rumsfeld attempted to resign after the atrocities of Abu Ghraib were uncovered shed new light on stories that have shaped our political landscape. Perhaps this is a documentary that has come too soon. Maybe enough time simply has not passed for any of us view these events without our engrained biases. Rumsfeld constantly states time will tell, and he may be right. It is just unfortunate he is unable to recognize he may also be wrong.