Film Review: The Unknown Known

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reviews his career in a challenging documentary by Errol Morris.

Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris profiles Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, a revealing portrait of a key Bush Administration figure. Given a chance to explain himself, the two-time former Defense Secretary offers instead empty thoughts and frustrating evasions. The implications behind Rumsfeld's comments are frightening, despite his attempts to come across as "cool and measured."

Rumsfeld dictated tens of thousands of memos over the course of his career, a self-described "blizzard" of verbiage that ranged from reassessments of historical events to pseudo-philosophical musings about how we perceive reality. In a coup for Morris, Rumsfeld agreed to re-read passages from these memos on camera. The Secretary also answers occasional questions from the director, who goes over key points in Rumsfeld's resume with astutely chosen news clips and other archival footage.

Rumsfeld's lack of self-awareness is either stunning or a put-on, in which case it is the equivalent of a remarkably disciplined and focused performance. Unlike Robert S. McNamara, who owned up to strategic flaws in his Vietnam War strategies in Morris' The Fog of War, Rumsfeld still defends his Iraq War policies.

He tussles with Morris over missing Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, suggesting that Saddam Hussein destroyed them to make the Bush team look bad. He claims never to have read the "torture memos" permitting enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees. He debates whether the U.S. assassinated targets or just "killed some people." Or, "Stuff happens," as he said in a press conference.

So anyone hoping for an admission of error from Rumsfeld will be disappointed. But Morris isn't trying to fix blame in The Unknown Known, he's trying to examine how someone in power makes decisions. Morris doesn't try to contradict Rumsfeld as much as let the Secretary's own words hang him.

The director does grill Rumsfeld at length about one of his famous sayings, "The absence of evidence is the evidence of absence." It sounds intelligent, and Rumsfeld repeats it solemnly, as if it actually meant something. But all the statement does is give you permission to do whatever you want. Why bother with evidence?

The documentary's title comes from an equally empty and irritating set of theses Rumsfeld spelled out in a 2004 memo. Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, unknown knowns—constructions like these give bureaucrats free rein to ignore morals and ethics.

Much of documentary filmmaking today tends to isolate problems and then blame someone or something for them. Morris is after something else, something harder to define and understand. Through careful questioning and meticulous editing, he builds a case that Rumsfeld is the most dangerous kind of civil servant, someone who can find a pretext to justify anything.

Viewers who expect answers to be handed to them aren't likely to take the time to work through The Unknown Known. Political junkies, on the other hand, will find plenty to think about here.