The Unknown Known

  • 2013
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Historical

While itís easy to think of Errol Morrisí The Unknown Known, the documentarianís examination of Donald Rumsfeld, as a companion piece to The Fog of War, his Oscar-winning look at Robert McNamara, there is something that sets this more recent movie apart, not only from that film, but from practically all of his other work: The Unknown Known is his angriest...read more

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Reviewed by Perry Seibert
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While itís easy to think of Errol Morrisí The Unknown Known, the documentarianís examination of Donald Rumsfeld, as a companion piece to The Fog of War, his Oscar-winning look at Robert McNamara, there is something that sets this more recent movie apart, not only from that film, but from practically all of his other work: The Unknown Known is his angriest movie.

The film follows the pattern of Morrisí earlier pictures. He creates a steady flow of images that give some poetic zing to the historical events described, but the film is dominated by an intimate interview with the subject, conducted in a way that forces the person in question to look directly into the camera. The audience sees, just as Morris does, how Rumsfeld quickly reverts to a sly chuckle or a forced smile whenever he wants to deflect a difficult question.

Morris lays out Rumsfeldís extensive career in Washington, how his ties with other Iraq War architects like Dick Cheney go back decades, and how Rumsfeldís managerial style resulted in a vast number of memos. You would think, with such a large amount of written material at everyoneís fingertips, that the truth about Rumsfeld would be easy to ascertain. However, Rumsfeld continually posits so many scenarios, what-ifs, and qualifiers that he effectively gives himself plausible deniability at every turn. This makes him, in many ways, the most infuriating subject of Morrisí career.

In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who was the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, admitted that mistakes were made -- not just by the government and the military, but by himself as well. Rumsfeld never comes close to making any such revelation, and we can hear the frustration in Morrisí voice as his questions grow more pointed; heís voicing our own reaction to Rumsfeldís smug disregard for self-analysis.

At one point, Morris, irritated by the lack of clear-cut answers, asks his subject why he agreed to be interviewed at all. Thatís a valid inquiry, but as with all of the questions about the war, Rumsfeld proves heís either unwilling or simply unable to discuss what he believes.

The title of the film is a riff on Rumsfeldís infamous quote about the governmentís inability to prove that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. He stated: ìReports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- there are things we do not know we don't know.î

ìUnknown knownî is a ridiculous turn of phrase, but one that accurately symbolizes Rumsfeldís practiced obtuseness. No matter how hard Morris tries, he never gets Rumsfeld to see the failings that are right in front of him. That makes for a fascinating, yet emotionally frustrating movie.

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  • Released: 2013
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: While itís easy to think of Errol Morrisí The Unknown Known, the documentarianís examination of Donald Rumsfeld, as a companion piece to The Fog of War, his Oscar-winning look at Robert McNamara, there is something that sets this more recent movie apart, n… (more)

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