The Unknown Known: Is there a takeaway?

Tonight, I saw the recently released documentary about Donald Rumsfeld.  It was about his handling of the Iraq War, and an overarching perspective of the decisions he has made throughout his political career….I think.  The film is called “The Unknown Known“, and it was directed and written by Errol Morris.  I say ,”I think” that is what I saw, because throughout the entire 103 minutes of interviews and footage (all of it entirely between Mr. Morris and Mr. Rumsfeld), I had a hard time deciphering the narrative, or “point”, of the whole thing.  More precise, I could not figure out Mr. Morris’ position on the matter of Mr. Rumsfeld.

Based on the promotional spots for this film, I believed I was going to see a documentary that somehow revealed something about Mr. Rumsfeld that I had not already thought before.  In short, that there was something more behind the public persona he portrayed while in public office; a persona, I might add, that I remember as coming off as calculating and manipulative. However, the movie left me with a feeling of utter vagueness.  I couldn’t tell what the point of it all was.Unknown knowns

At some points throughout the film, I felt that Morris was trying to prove Rumsfeld was complicit in his knowledge of a plan for the second Iraq War in 2003, prior to the attacks on 9/11.  Rumsfeld is filmed reading memos he had written that seem to indicate he had some foreknowledge of the plans to attack Iraq.  Or, what some also might call, the “Neo-Conservative Agenda for the Middle East.”  But then, a few minutes later, Morris allows Rumsfeld the cliché when asked about the outcome of the Iraq War, “Everything seems amazing in retrospect…Stuff happens.”  What is Morris trying to prove here?  That Rumsfeld is complicit in something sinister, or that he deserves the benefit of the doubt?

The film then delves into a historical exploration of Rumsfeld’s political career, coupled with a smattering of personal anecdotes (I guess for the purpose of humanizing the subject of the film).  And yet, each of the sub-topics of his civic and political career; his time in the U.S. Navy; his positions in the Nixon and Ford Administrations; his actions leading up to and during 9/11; seem to have an implication that “something fishy is going on”.  And yet, these “fishy implications” are never summarized, or spelled out by Mr. Morris.  One is left wondering, “what was the point of all that?”  I for one left wondering, “what did I just see?”

Was I to believe Rumsfeld was culpable for covering up something during his time in the Bush Administration?  Or, was I to believe that he was a noble man, doing his job, and simply made an honest series of mistaken decisions along the way?  There is much evidence to suggest that the latter is not the case.  Morris does not offer an overt position or explanation on either in the film.

In fairness, it could have been Mr. Morris’ intention all along to present a nuanced portrayal of a controversial figure.  Perhaps, I am simply too caught up in my pre-conceived notions of Mr. Rumsfeld to give him a fair shot.  Or, perhaps Mr. Morris knowingly used Mr. Rumsfeld’s own words and calculated demeanor to paint a picture of him that so may Americans already suspect…

Just as Mr. Rumsfeld perfected the art of language manipulation in his press conferences (as the film shows), Mr. Morris utilizes Mr. Rumsfeld’s own words and smarmy gestures to show that there really might be something lurking under the surface that is not entirely tangible.  There just might be, as Morris hints at throughout the film, something hiding behind that wide grin….Something, as Rumsfled might say, that could be considered an “unknown known.”



Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

One thought on “The Unknown Known: Is there a takeaway?”

  1. I think Errol Morris is one of the most brilliant filmmakers ever. Instead of pre-crafting his points of view, he uses an approach of pure research and allows the investigations to go wherever the information leads. That’s both brave and incredibly risky. A number of his projects have ended up in dead ends.

    To me, the Rumsfeld film was his way of proving there truly was no “there” there, that one of the main architects of the Iraq War had no concrete viewpoint at all, no guiding moral compass, no conscience, and the ability to be happy justifying any mistake through rhetorical and philosophical concentric circles. That’s what the squinty smile is about, so inappropriate when connected to what he’s saying. It’s a damning portrait of the banality that protects the man from any sense of responsibility for the terrible aftermath.

    In that way, this film is a companion piece to Morris’ previous film The Fog of War, which follows Robert McNamara’s evolution from hot to cold warrior, and eventually to regret and a kind of pacifism. Where McNamara thought about every consequence and re-evaluated it all again and again, Rumsfeld thinks about as little after the fact as he can.


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