Review: The Unknown Known
Although it’s disappointing politically that the bedeviling Donald Rumsfeld fails to emulate Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’ documentary, The Fog of War, it makes for compelling cinema in Morris’ new film The Unknown Known. Whereas McNamara gave plenty of mea culpa heft to his turn in the spotlight, Rumsfeld is instead intent on making sure the camera keeps focused on his outsized persona. The 81-year-old former Secretary of Defense seems happy to deflect, sidestep, and then finally define away the very essence of what may very well have been massive misjudgments concerning our country’s invasion of Iraq, and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Does a more complex Rumsfeld emerge from the film, or does he merely come off more entertaining? The film references thousands of memos Rumsfeld sent to employers, colleagues , and President George W. Bush, who eventually fired him after the 2006 midterms. Rumsfeld, always the consummate spinner and masterfully recalcitrant presence at his amusing press conferences, goes beyond merely justifying his often questionable actions.
Making a game out of examining definitions of everyday words and expressions, he shows no qualms about throwing up smokescreens of verbiage at every turn. Morris explores Rumsfeld’s slippery “There are things we do not know we don’t know” comment on the eve of our Iraq involvement. Rumsfeld’s only too happy to stand behind and extend the mumbo jumbo of the phrase, which seems to have justified his miscalculations over what is now generally thought to be at the very least a misreading of available intelligence concerning evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s turning to facile aphorisms (“the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is another example) would be comical if it didn’t simultaneously feel so pathological.
Sure, Rumsfeld worked from what seem like noble intentions and from convictions established at Pearl Harbor, which he references in the film. It’s unsettling that it is still his view that he hardly made a wrong decision regarding Iraq (the farthest he goes to admitting wrong is the nebulous admission of a possible “failure of imagination.”). It should be sobering to him that the intensified anti-Americanism spurred by the Abu Ghraib debacle set back his regime-changing vision of a postwar Iraq driven by benign, Democratic influences, and that the decision to go into Iraq not only cost lives and money but sparked American public opinion to move much closer to isolationism (see Syria).
Are we to believe Rumsfeld’s true colors emerge once Morris trips him up? Although he denies the Bush Administration having claimed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 911 attacks, Morris provides a tape of his having said precisely that. Then, after claiming he had no evidence of interrogation techniques at Guantanamo leading to bringing on on the abuses at Abu Ghraib, he clings to the same assumptions despite Morris showing him a memo that a panel had told him that very conclusion. Morris is his usual masterful documentarian. Rumsfeld continues on like a tone-deaf trooper intent on his self- preservation as much as on what may be an increasingly fragile old-school worldview. McNamara probably had no trouble sleeping after his turn in the Morris chamber. One wonders about Rummy.
4 Plopping Definitons and Word Games Every Which Way (out of 5 stars)