Midway through Errol Morris’ latest documentary, “The Unknown Known,” it becomes apparent that subject Donald Rumsfeld is a master of language, and perhaps, denial. Equally fascinating and frustrating is how the former Secretary of Defense under the George W. Bush administration discusses his role and his thousands of memos outlining his decision-making leading up to and during the Iraq war. Are there regrets, second thoughts, these numerous years later? Seemingly, not.
Documentarian Errol Morris likes to wrestle with bigger than life characters who are often mired in some type of controversy. Often the overriding theme is, “what could they have been thinking to act the way they did?” His multitude of interviewees, including Robert S. McNamara in 2003’s “The Fog of War” and the more recent Joyce McKinney in “Tabloid” (2010), tackle Morris’ pointed interview questions regarding their thought processes. Some, like McNamara, even reflect and regret some of their decisions.
In the production notes for “The Unknown Known,” Morris remarks that underneath the surface of his subject’s public persona, “…what I usually find is self-deception, self-importance, and self-satisfaction – phantasmagorical thinking. I spent 33 hours with Donald Rumsfeld. And what I discovered was that he was the quintessential Errol Morris character. “
Sitting down with Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known,” Morris discusses Rumsfeld’s “snowflake” memos, in hopes of understanding the former Secretary of Defense’s thought process regarding the Iraq War. A term coined by Rumsfeld, these “snowflakes” are an enormous number of memos (tens of thousands) that Rumsfeld authored and archived over his fifty years in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon – perhaps to self-dictate how history would remember him?
“The memos give us a way of looking inside of his head. I saw this as a chance to do history from the inside out, using the memos as a way of exploring the disjunction between how Rumsfeld wants to be seen, how he wants people to think of him, and who he really is and what he’s really done. The opportunity for him to read these memos, contextualize them, discuss them with me, was, to me, the most powerful reason for making the film.”
Yet, Rumsfeld is canny. He’s learned how to play the game to survive his long career in politics and that isn’t going to change just because Morris is asking the questions. With phrases and statements pulled directly from his memos, Rumsfeld has an answer or reason for them all.
Sprinkled throughout his ‘snowflakes’ are turn of phrases like, “…the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” or the film’s title phrase from a 2004 memo with the subject line, “What You Know” concerning knowns and unknowns:
“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.”
At the end of the film, when Morris asks Rumsfeld point blank, “Why are you talking to me?” Rumsfeld responds, “That’s a vicious question, I’ll be darned if I know.”
Do these revelations make Rumsfeld a more known, fascinating or frustrating character in “The Unknown Known”? Answer: No. Yes. Yes.
“The Unknown Known” is 102 minutes, PG-13, and opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 2.
For other film related articles by Lori Huck, check out:
‘Tabloid’ Film Review – Errol Morris’ Superb and Sensational Tabloid Tale
Errol Morris Discusses His Latest Film ‘Tabloid,’ Journalism, and Truth
The Top 10 Documentaries of 2013