The Unknown Known Review

Posted: April 5, 2014 in Documentary, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

unknownknownIn 1985, Claus von Bülow, the man who was twice tried for attempting to murder his wife by injecting her with an overdose of insulin, posed for photographer Helmut Newton while wearing a heavily zippered leather jacket and jeans and looking like an aging sexual deviant. “Why would he do that?” people asked.

Learning that Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush during the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had fully cooperated with filmmaker Errol Morris in a documentary focusing on his career in public service, provokes the exact same response.

Why would he do that?

In fact, why is the last question Morris asks Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, a sometimes fascinating, but too often frustrating 103 minute interrogation. His inadequate answer is one of the few times that words fail Rumsfeld. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 were each a “failure of imagination.” The fall of Saigon in 1975, which he watched from the Oval Office with President Gerald Ford, was, “The inevitable ugly ending of an unsuccessful effort.”

And the film recalls several others of his greatest hits:

“Stuff happens.”

“I don’t do quagmires.”

“It’s easier to get into something than to get out of it.”

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The problem is that with the exception of the occasional question or challenge coming from an off-camera Morris, the movie is all Rumsfeld all the time. He is a more than capable actor, and that is certainly the case when he slips into the role of Donald Rumsfeld, Statesman. He is witty, charming, slippery, and sentimental. Even more striking is that he is never thrown off stride, is never seen as peevish or angry. He is Ali in Zaire, sliding along the ropes while Morris stalks him like a clumsy Foreman, barely laying a glove on him. “I’ll chalk that one up for me,” Rumsfeld tells Morris, after sidestepping an attempted shot.

Morris asks him to read aloud a number of his memos, known as “snowflakes” because they were pieces of white that seemed to those in the Pentagon to fall from the sky in a blizzard. Rumsfeld complies, and it turns out that he’s a fine narrator. He just might have a future on the History Channel (hmmm – History Films, the documentary production arm of the History Network, did produce the film, so they now have an audition tape). Yet, when he reads a tersely worded “shove it” memo to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, there’s no follow up. The viewer is naturally waiting for Condi to give a rebuttal, but none is forthcoming.

The film retraces Rumsfeld’s extensive career in public service from congressman to posts in the Nixon Administration, Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense for Ford, and finally his return to the Pentagon under president George W. Bush from 2001-2006. He was also under consideration by Reagan for the vice president slot in 1980 that ultimately went to George H.W. Bush, his most bitter rival. Rumsfeld acknowledges that for that one decision, he might have been vice president and even president. What is striking about this career that stretched over four decades is how often Rumsfeld was in the front row for calamitous events in American history including Watergate, Viet Nam, Sarah Jane Moore’s attempt to assassinate Ford, 9-11 (he was in his office in the Pentagon when the plane struck the building), Bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan, the ill-fated invasion of Iraq based on inaccurate intelligence, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib.

Rumsfeld escapes with his already tattered reputation little worse for wear. It is Nixon, Haldeman, and Kissinger – not Morris – that provide the most insight into this controversial figure’s character. An excerpt from the Nixon White House tapes in The Unknown Known has the three commenting on Rumsfeld’s readiness to “jump ship” (i.e., leave the Administration). “Let’s dump him,” Nixon concludes. But Rumsfeld outlasted all three, and perhaps that is the reason he agreed to sit down with Morris. No matter the mess Donald Rumsfeld ever found himself in, he always managed to survive.

Two stars.

  1. Mirella McCracken says:

    I rent it on iTunes to day, and I liked it.
    Whether you like Rumsfeld or not, I believe the documentary is very well done.
    Thank you for the review!

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