One of the challenges of reviewing a documentary – specifically one about an individual – is that it can be hard to distinguish one’s feelings regarding the subject from one’s impressions of the film as a whole. Perhaps though that is part of what forms a great documentary; that we are allowed to become so enmeshed with our subject that we lose the veil which separates us. Additionally, when it comes to politics and those who move and shape it, one must struggle to assess a film in spite of one’s particular party allegiance. I have not spent a whole lot of time thinking about Donald Rumsfeld, and I question how much anyone really does other than maybe Mrs. Rumsfeld or Donald himself. In fact, I feel fairly confident in saying that it is evident that Donald has spent quite a lot of time thinking about Donald Rumsfeld, and obviously, so has Errol Morris the brilliant documentary filmmaker as demonstrated in his new documentary “The Unknown Known.” Morris has formed his chronicle of Rumsfeld around a skeleton of Rumsfeld’s tens of thousands of political memos which are now archived online. The title of the film, ‘the unknown known’ refers to a concept Rumsfeld elaborated upon during a 2002 press conference at the White House which exemplifies his vernacular and briefing style perfectly.
Donald Rumsfeld has had a long career in public service beginning with his position as Administrative Assistant to Congressman David S. Dennison Jr. in the Eisenhower administration. In 1962, at the tender age of 30 he was elected to Congress and, well, its been onward and ‘upward’ since then. Rumsfeld is indeed a fascinating subject not merely due to his breadth of experience, or the political and world events in which he has had an instrumental hand in managing or – dare I say – orchestrating. He is a man with his own philosophy as no doubt all those who commandeer the crushing responsibilities inherent in the role of Secretary of Defense must own fully. It is however Rumsfeld’s unshrinking conviction that his philosophy is the “truth” despite evidence to the contrary which makes him fascinating. He is unshakable in his belief system. You can almost see a neural short-circuit when he is confronted with the possibility that his view, his recommendations, his choices may not have been best. He holds seemingly opposing beliefs which allow for the eventuality of ANY possibility – his philosophy morphs and shifts according to potentialities. And he is not aware of that, nor can he allow for the whisper of doubt from hindsight to insinuate itself into his consciousness. Rumsfeld is without question a highly intelligent man and he allows for convenient “truths” by manipulating semantics which makes for an entertaining and fast paced mind game. He is brilliantly adept at providing non-answer-answers and the art of bait & switch redirection. Good thing Morris is on par with him and does not shrink from diplomatically confronting him on discrepancies when we start to squirm so severely we want to scream.
There are moments in “The Unknown Known” which are thrilling in their own way; to hear Nixon and Bob Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff to Nixon) discussing Rumsfeld on one of the many Watergate era tapes is electrifying. A memo sent to Condoleeza Rice entitled “Chain of Command” will make your mouth drop open and ask yourself whether he would have ever even considered sending something of that nature to a male member of the administration. The moment where he states that all captured terrorists (actual or perceived) would be better off treated as prisoners of war makes you question your hearing. It is in those moments where the brilliance of Errol Morris is most apparent. He can lay bare a horror with even greater force by allowing his subject to believe he is being celebrated, and that is a magic trick few can match. As a history of a long and storied political career, “The Unknown Known” highlights some key moments of the latter 20th century from the perspective of someone on the inside and consequently presents them through the colored glasses of his subject. But moreover this is a character study, a biography, and it is an excellent one. At one point Rumsfeld says, “It is easier to get into things than it is to get out of them.” Beyond being a valuable truth in almost any context, we suspect as the film concludes that Rumsfeld himself may be thinking of that very truth…
Director – Errol Morris
Starring – Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris, and historical footage of multiple US political figures
103 minutes, Rated PG-13
Movie Review The Unknown Known