The Unknown Known – 4 stars


Not an apologia, nor a self serving justification, but rather, an opportunity to listen to the methodology, nuance and capacities of one of the more influential policymakers of our generation. Documentarian Errol Morris is astute enough to let Donald Rumsfeld roll with little interruption, but with occasional prodding, to attempt to reach his core. Unlike with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, who eventually reached an acknowledgment that seemed near confessional with regard to his failures in Vietnam, Rumsfeld is not of the same mindset. He is not prideful in his cheery resistance to apology: he’s quite capable of admitting error, but he refuses to accept the premise that in the commission of error, there necessarily lies moral failure or self-serving and political calculation.

Morris is a little cheap on occasion, and with someone who is as careful with his words as Rumsfeld, it is problematic. For example, Morris goes “gotcha!” when he juxtaposes Rumsfeld’s denial that the Bush administration cast Iraq as a major player with al Qaeda in the direct planning of the 9-11 attacks with his statement in a press conference that al Qaeda and Iraq certainly had a relationship. Mostly, however, Morris feels flummoxed by Rumsfeld, which is actually a good thing. Morris approaches him as a dramatist and a provocateur, asking “why obsessed with Iraq?” and “why not just assassinate Saddam?”  He receives answers, albeit answers you can tell he feels are not obfuscatory so much as unsatisfactory.

No neat wrap-up, no target hit, no successful gotchas, just a rumination on Rumsfeld’s mind, peculiar process and recollection. There’s a great exchange where Morris advances that Shakespeare wrote about large personality filled power struggles, Rumsfeld replies that in fact those struggles are really just people with different perspectives, Morris exclaims “Did Shakespeare get it wrong?” and Rumsfeld thinks about it, shrugs, and suggests maybe Shakespeare got it right . . . for his time. In that same vein, Morris pushes for lessons between Vietnam (the end of which Rumsfeld oversaw serving President Ford) and Iraq, and Rumsfeld parries that one hopes to heed lessons in history, but the primary lesson is “some things work out and some don’t.”

Morris wants questions like, “How do you know when you are going too far?” answered to his satisfaction and Rumsfeld is literally the last person on this earth equipped or inclined to provide him a satisfactory answer.  Are you saying, “Stuff just happens?”, Morris asks at one point, in exasperation.  Rumsfeld looks back at him with the look of someone who has just been asked “Are you saying you breathe air?”  Morris conceded his agenda, and perhaps the thwarting of same, in an interview: “You’re left with a strange anxiety about [Rumsfeld].  I suppose if I was Mike Wallace or David Frost or whoever, I’d back [him] into a corner. But I love those moments, because I don’t even know where I am anymore. I don’t know whether he’s in any way self-aware, whether he is lying, whether he’s just in some strange alternate universe, the Rumsfeld universe. . . . There’s a ‘j’accuse’ there, but it’s my ‘j’accuse’.”

The consensus from the dummy contingent of film critics is that Rumsfeld was given the rope with which to hang himself, or his artful dodging is in and of itself proof of the indictment as to his treachery, but what Morris has actually accomplished is a demonstration of the incongruity between the needs of artists,  or those who see the world through a Shakespearean lens, and policymakers, who take it one memo at a time.

On Netflix streaming.


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