Movie Review - The Unknown Known

Former Sec. of Def. Donald Rumsfeld
Errol Morris interviews former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the manner that Morris made famous. He has his subject stare directly into the camera and speak about his life and political career. Some call this film a spiritual sequel to Morris' The Fog of War (2003), which was his Oscar-winning documentary interviewing former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The point of The Fog of War is to learn lessons from McNamara about the Vietnam War. It's ironic because clearly whatever lessons McNamara was teaching, Rumsfeld didn't take heed of any of them, starting with the first. At the opening of The Fog of War, McNamara says, "You make one mistake, and you're going to destroy nations." Given what's now happening in Iraq, and given Rumsfeld oversaw the war in Iraq, this lesson is very prescient.

This movie could also be a kind of sequel in part to Morris' Standard Operating Procedure (2008), which was an analysis of the photos taken during the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Morris asks Rumsfeld about Abu Ghraib. President George W. Bush and his administration, of which Rumsfeld was a part at the time, tried to distance themselves from the scandal by saying the guards were just a bunch of bad apples and that it wasn't indicative of a larger problem in terms of where these torture ideas originated. Rumsfeld continues that line, but he says something I didn't realize.

The title of the movie comes from Rumsfeld's 2011 book Known and Unknown: A Memoir, but the structure is a chronological review of the vast series of memos, dictations and notes that Rumsfeld began generating back in 1962 when he was first elected to Congress as a U.S. House of Representatives member from Illinois at the age of 30. That means there are 50 years of memos and notes to comb. One such that wasn't official was Rumsfeld's letter of resignation following the Abu Ghraib scandal breaking.

Rumsfeld implied giving his resignation would help the administration by perhaps putting blame on him for the scandal. Whether it was real or perceived blame, he didn't say, but that initial resignation was rejected and Rumsfeld never says why. The assumption must be the administration rejected it because his resignation wouldn't help in their move to distance themselves from the scandal.

Documentaries like Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Morris' 2008 film suggest that Abu Ghraib was not just a few bad apples and maybe there is culpability that goes up the chain of command all the way to the Bush administration. Morris, however, never pushes this point with Rumsfeld. Morris is mostly amiable and never really challenges Rumsfeld on many points. Morris does provide some rope for Rumsfeld to hang himself, but Rumsfeld always comes across as a loveable, if ingenuous, old man.

Unlike Morris' previous feature, Tabloid, there are not other interviews to provide context or contradiction. Morris does bring up counterpoints. When Rumsfeld proclaims that the United States doesn't assassinate leaders of nations or countries, Morris rebuts with the Dora Farms strike on March 19, 2003. Other than that and the resignation moment, there isn't much excitement here.

Rumsfeld might be a good character to get into a debate, but Morris never goes there.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.


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