About halfway through the new documentary, The Unknown Known, culled from 30-plus hours of interview material with Donald Rumsfeld, director Errol Morris asks the former secretary of defense about his first impression of Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld appears to ponder the question for a moment then comments, “He was living his image of himself, which was pretend.”
The camera then lingers for several long, awkward moments on Rumsfeld’s face, apparently inviting the viewer to consider that the same may apply to the film’s subject. Yet, with the exception of some seriously indicting film editing, nothing Rumsfeld has said invites the comparison. The irony is totally in Morris’ mind, and a similar disconnect between content and intent characterizes the entirety of his film.
Morris achieved filmmaking fame (and an Academy Award) with the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, in which he managed to get Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to confess that some of his actions may have constituted war crimes. Throughout The Unknown Known, Morris seems to think he has something similar on Rumsfeld—some damning admission or unintentionally revealing comment—that he doesn’t. He asks questions that, to a conservative point of view at least, seem at best naive, at worst childlike (i.e., what if Saddam Hussein had been killed in a missile strike? Could the Iraq War have been avoided?). He then seems frustrated as Rumsfeld proceeds to dismantle the premise of his questions or treats them with the lack of seriousness they deserve.
Instead, what slowly and subtly emerges of Rumsfeld is someone with honorable intentions and a greater sense of wit and self-deprecation than most younger, millennial viewers previously would have imagined of a man who’s been painted as one of recent history’s greatest villains. For example, Rumsfeld’s staff had termed the voluminous memos for which he was notorious “snowflakes.” In a sly wink to this, he titled his last “The Blizzard Is Over.” Morris’ documentary even had uber-leftwing TV host Bill Maher defending the man, informing a crestfallen Morris that the documentary left Maher with a sense of Rumsfeld’s humility and nuance, a sense of a man who “thinks about things.”
Perhaps that’s why Rumsfeld made the seemingly inexplicable decision to participate in the unapologetically liberal Morris’ documentary. He believed that even with a deck as outsized as 33 hours of interview material culled down to 140 minutes working against him, he’d be able to defend the rationale behind the Iraq War, even if some of that rationale eventually proved incorrect.
In this, Rumsfeld’s bet largely pays off, particularly when he expresses his sincere regret and sense of failure for the abuses that took place in Abu Ghraib. If anything, Morris’ lens lingering on the notorious photos of nude prisoners comes off a bit petty in light of the great questions and responsibilities Rumsfeld had to grapple with during his time in the Bush administration.
The title of the film comes from Rumsfeld’s explanation of a 2004 memo where he detailed the central challenges of intelligence gathering, namely that, along with what we know and what we do not know, there are also “unknown knowns”—things that we know that we don’t yet realize we know. When Morris informs him that in the actual memo he defined the term as things we think we know that later turn out to be wrong, Rumsfeld looks surprised, but not particularly flustered. “Is that what it says?” he asks. “Well, I think that memo is reversed. I think it’s closer to what I’ve said here.” Then he smiles the same relaxed, comfortable-in-his-own-skin smile he’s been indulging nearly all of Morris’ semantics-splitting questions with and shrugs. “I think you’re probably chasing the wrong rabbit.” Indeed.