An Absence of Evidence: ‘The Unknown Known’

Of the three men who led an unprepared America into the Iraq quagmire, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had less of a say in the invasion than either Vice President Dick Cheney or President George W. Bush. But of the three, Rumsfeld is the one you would want to sit in the chair across from Errol Morris.

In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Morris’s documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come.

The Fog of War was subtitled Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. There is no such correlative structure to The Unknown Known. It’s a looser, more free-associating piece that fits Rumsfeld’s intellectual magpie style. The film starts right in the thick of things, with 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. You can hear Morris, normally a quieter interviewer, lobbing in questions from behind the camera, sometimes in laughing exasperation. Rumsfeld just sits there with that peculiarly dark-eyed smile and whips them right back.

Never much of a gotcha filmmaker (which is to his credit), Morris can’t resist the occasional cut to tape in order to show up Rumsfeld in one of his more hard-to-believe claims. Stating that he didn’t believe anybody truly thought there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, the film shows him at a 2003 press conference sarcastically inferring just that. Morris isn’t trying to make 60 Minutes here; there’s no moment where he tries to pin Rumsfeld down; the tape suffices.

Instead of shouting “j’accuse” at Rumsfeld for his part in a military fiasco, the film tries to paint a portrait of the man. Cutting back to his years as a young Congressman and then to his time in the Nixon administration—an audio clip reveals Nixon and Bob Haldeman agreeing that Rumsfeld is less loyalist than rank opportunist—and then Ford, the film shows him as an astute Washington knife-fighter who came close to being considered for Reagan’s vice president.

More interesting than the Machiavellian tendencies, though, is Rumsfeld’s eye towards strategic thinking. This is Morris’s great advantage. Rumsfeld loves to talk and to write. Throughout his decades in government, he poured out memos on all manner of subjects. One memorably cynical 1983 memo after the Beirut Marine barracks bombing titled “The Swamp” advised that America should avoid any future entanglements in the Middle East. Rumsfeld reads his conclusion to the memo, which noted the futility of trying for a “lasting peace” in the region, saying that the “only things that are lasting are conflict, blackmail, and killing.” His inability to later follow that advice is one of the film’s unspoken ironies. Morris lets a recurring aerial shot of a swamp suffice.

Presented with a subject so adroit at dodging the slightest hint of culpability, Morris is left with a character of almost equally comic and tragic components. Trained in the law at Georgetown (though he never became a lawyer), Rumsfeld’s exacting eye towards evasive yet precise statements always made for dark comedy in those Iraq War press conferences. “Freedom’s untidy,” “stuff happens,” “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence;” most of the great dissembling clips are here. At times, Morris seems to be throwing them in for the sake of comedy, if nothing else. The comedy aspect is highlighted by the bumptious Danny Elfman score, no moody Philip Glass music like in The Fog of War.

Rumsfeld seems little changed years after the fact, prone to nitpickery and avoiding the issue at hand. He rarely seems happier than when teasing apart the reasons why a question was phrased (to his thinking) incorrectly or musing about the impossibility of certainty. His famously poetic rumination on “there are also unknown unknowns … things we do not know we don’t know,” which the film takes its title from, is about as good a distillation of Rumsfeld’s view on world affairs. It’s also a tacit admission of defeat, a shrugging of the shoulders that goes beyond foreign-policy realism into a worldview that seems closer to “What are you gonna do?”

Adroitly compiled and thoughtful, The Unknown Known could also be accused of avoiding the issue itself. Faced with a man whose strategies directly contributed to the biggest failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Morris pivots to an unenlightening focus on the torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and the controversies over Guantanamo. It’s just as well, though; a man who still believes that “time will tell” about whether the invasion of Iraq was sound strategy is not likely to be forthcoming on the failures of the Bush administration’s wars. Thusly Morris’s other visual motif: a placid sea, beautifully untroubled by self-doubt.

RATING 8 / 10