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The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld

Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris

(Radius-TWC; DOC NYC: 14 Nov 2013; 2013)

One of America's Nightmares Came True


“The more I studied this performance, the more I realized that what Rumsfeld said wasn’t really an answer.”
Errol Morris


“I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn’t believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny, “The sky is falling.” I’ve never seen anything like it! And here is a country that’s being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they’re free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or 10 headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a civilian, who they claimed we had shot—one thing after another. It’s just unbelievable how people can take that away from what is happening in that country!”


The vocal stylings of Donald Rumsfeld remain mysterious to this day. During his press briefings when he was Secretary of Defense, he regularly put on a show, alternately combative and cajoling, recalcitrant and chatty. In the instance quoted above, he made the very idea of doubting his version of events seem somehow preposterous. He turned inquiries around, made accusations and jokes, reframed the relationships between media and government, truth and history, memory and language, posing and even embodying philosophical dilemmas. 


All this makes Rumsfeld rather the perfect subject for an Errol Morris film, a point that becomes clear in the first minutes of The Unknown Known, opening 4 April in select theaters. While the filmmaker has long and continuously posed his own questions regarding truth—how to guess it, recall it, understand it, document it—he has also helped to change the parameters of documentary. If all of his films have pressed the art form, the recent work—from his Academy-Award-winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and the brilliant Standard Operating Procedure through to the rambunctious Tabloid and Wilderness of Error, his book on Janet Malcolm and the Jeffrey MacDonald case, Morris repeatedly reveals and ponders and sometimes breaks up mystery, but mostly leaves it to you to sort out resolutions.


Morris’ interviews are perennially puzzles in and of themselves, his ever-off-screen voice lending a semblance of structure, underlining key difficulties in responses or challenges for you, his Interrotron concocting and also alleviating a sense of contest between interviewer and interviewee. All his films stretch and poke at the boundaries of documentary, of reporting and digging, expressing and staging, assessing and disputing stories told. The Unknown Known is at once more of this sort of inquiry and unlike it too. That this film features as well gorgeous and strange reenactments, ghostly versions of Rumsfeld’s many memos, stunningly composed B-roll images, and Danny Elfman’s sinuous, and provocative soundtrack music only makes the conundrum more enthralling, less settled.


At times, it seems almost like a workout, as Rumsfeld continues to perform himself, rejecting the confessional mode of so many other documentaries, never conceding, regularly correcting his questioners—whether Morris plays the part himself or uses other sources, say, polls or historical records or news footage, to pose doubts about Rumsfeld’s various assertions. What about the run-up to the war in Iraq, Morris wonders, the ways that lines were blurred between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as culprits? “I don’t think the America people were confused about that,” insists Rumsfeld. What about Saddam’s declaration in February 2003 that Iraq had no WMD? “And Abraham Lincoln was short,” he retorts, smiling like he’s won something, before asks an off-screen Jim Miklaszewski, “Would you care to respond directly to what Saddam Hussein has said today?” Here Rumsfeld looks in the Pentagon briefing camera and throws up his hands as if dancing: “How does one respond to that? It’s a continuous pattern, this is a case of the local liar coming up and people repeating what he said and forgetting to say that he never, almost never, rarely tells the truth.”


The mirror image Rumsfeld here creates, his hardly inverted similarity to the villain he means to mock and declaim, would be comical if the effects of his and the administration’s lies weren’t so devastating and ongoing. If The Unknown Known doesn’t provide an a-ha moment, no life-altering confession as in The Thin Blue Line and no mea culpa, as in the case of McNamara (disconcerting but hardly a surprise, as he had, after all, titled his book just that when he agreed to sit down with Morris). But such catharsis—whether you read it as real or artful or both—cannot come with Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld offers words, but you can’t know what he knows or what he won’t know, whether he believes the bromides he comes up with (“There are two sides to the coin,” maybe, or that “Freedom is untidy”) or whether he understands the shtick he’s running, still.


It’s unknown too whether Rumsfeld is constitutionally unable to pretend to tell the truth, whether his comprehension of language and ideas is profound or ridiculous, whether his continued torturing of the notion of truth is a put-on or a sincere effort. The question is whether this matters. For even as the film allows all this contradiction and judges him for it, it also presents the performance as its own truth. That’s not to say it exposes Rumsfeld, or even that its subject is Rumsfeld per se. It is to say that the movie asks you to think about the pattern of lies and dances, about your relationship to Rumsfeld and those like him who incarnate the institutions, the corporations and administrations and “interests,” who wage these many endless wars. It asks you to be aware that your known is unknown, whether you guess it or not. 


The conversation here, haunted by Elfman’s choral voices, is inconsistently adversarial, always vaguely tense, a peculiar knot of language and posture. Asked if there is a lesson to be taken from Iraq, he suggests, “Some things work out some things don’t,” observes Rumsfeld. “That one didn’t. If that’s a lesson, yes, that’s a lesson.” Evasive as he’s acting as if he’s direct, correcting his own now notorious memo on “the unknown known”, Rumsfeld takes up this film as he’s taken up most every other public performance. ““Why are you doing this?” asks Morris. “Why are you talking to me?” Rumsfeld smiles again, or rather, his face affects the familiar squinty grimace that might be his smile. “That is a vicious question,” he says. “I’ll be darned if I know.”

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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