Let’s play Rummy

Errol Morris takes on Donald in The Unknown Known

The title of Errol Morris’ excellent new documentary The Unknown Known comes of course from former U.S. secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s now-infamous quote justifying the intelligence failures of the Iraq War. It’s worth quoting in full: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because as we know there are known known’s; 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.”

It’s also a perfect way to describe ol’ Rummy himself. His bland media-born image and aggressively weird and obtuse comments are now best remembered as symptomatic oddities characterizing president George W. Bush’s reign. Despite the statement continuing to be mocked for its seeming ridiculousness I think Morris is correct to point out how clever it actually is — of course there are “things we do not know we don’t know.” It’s the kind of thinking that can be used proactively as defensive policy or to justify attacking another nation with little evidence.

If you thought Rumsfeld was always superficial shiny and plastic given to overly emotive fake-looking smiles and empty rhetoric… well the film won’t change your mind. Nor will you see the sorts of character reveals and deep confessionary tracts that Robert McNamara delivers in The Fog of War . I’d guess that many viewers looking for a punishing Iraq War exposé will be disappointed but that isn’t the point of Morris’ doc. It’s telling that the director has cited it as one of his favourite films with reviewers offering middling praise; what he’s examining here are the limits of documentary reveal and the consequences of political disengagement.

Using his patented and ingenious Interrotron device (a camera that allows him to film his subjects in close-up and interview them while sitting facebto face) Morris stages most of the film directly around Rumsfeld’s smiling visage; it’s about as lengthy and intimate most will ever want to be with the politician. Morris is less theatrically stagey with this film than his earlier more famous works like The Thin Blue Line opting for more particularly chosen news and film clips. And as always Rumsfeld’s grinning face.

The slick politician proves to be a compelling character. Morris goes back to the beginnings of Rumsfeld’s career where he toiled for years as a minor league congressman in the early ’60s to his job as Bush Jr.’s secretary of defence and one of the key players in 2003’s Iraq invasion. Rumsfeld’s evasive opinions regarding the failures of the Iraq War are to be expected but more intriguing is that his long political career appears so ideologically aimless despite his accomplishments and appointments. He’s less every conspiracy theorist’s nightmare than human bafflement in its most dangerous form a man who just methodically trudges along the corridors of power. It’s all about the process of government not the meaning of it.

At first glance it looks as if Morris gives Rumsfeld all the rope he needs to hang himself with confronting him with shady muddled proclamations about the Iraq War and military intelligence. (A lot of that feeling will depend on your feelings regarding the war in the first place.) But he isn’t interested in merely assassinating Rumsfeld; like his devastating documentary on Abu Ghraib Standard Operating Procedure and the deliciously weird Tabloid the theme here is duplicity image and the varied meanings that the word “intelligence” implies. Infuriating and thrilling in equal measure The Unknown Known is Morris’ most beguiling documentary and one of his best.