If you know anything about gifted documentarian Errol Morris — or about recent secretaries of Defense for that matter — comparing his new film, “The Unknown Known,” with his earlier work, 2003’s Oscar-winning “The Fog of War,” is all but inevitable. At least at first.
Both films are smartly constructed one-interview films featuring an 80-something former Defense secretary who spends considerable time talking about his role as the voice of one of the most unpopular wars of recent American history. But that’s where the similarities end and personal differences take over.
For if “Fog of War’s” Robert McNamara was shown to be troubled by decisions he was part of during Vietnam and earlier conflicts, then Donald Rumsfeld, the man in charge during the 2003 Iraq invasion, shows no such compunctions about his parallel position.
Energetically unrepentant and serenely free of self-doubt, Rumsfeld takes the concept of the grace of certainty to dizzying heights. Though Morris has said, “Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started,” the filmmaker has accomplished considerably more than he lets on.
If the purpose of a film like “The Unknown Known” is to show us the man, the picture it presents of Rumsfeld is fully as involving and indelible as the one “Fog of War” gave us of McNamara, even if Rumsfeld’s on-screen behavior does not wear nearly as well.
Canny, cagey and focused, this former secretary is someone who uses language not to answer questions but to avoid them. His gift for deflection is so great that if conversation were a contact sport like boxing, you’d be tempted to say that Rumsfeld would always win on points because no one can lay a glove on him.
But when you are on camera for close to two hours, there is only so much bobbing and weaving you can do. Much against Rumsfeld’s will, what the film inevitably reveals, in Morris’ words, is “a man using language to obscure the world from himself as well as from others.” As Mark Danner wrote in a penetrating three-part series in the New York Review of Books, we get a good look at “the good ol’ boy persona Rumsfeld has worn so long he might well have forgotten how to put it aside.”
The film’s title comes from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous pieces of obfuscation, the notion that there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and even unknown knowns, “that is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.”
That formulation comes from one of the tsunami of memos Rumsfeld dictated into a Norcom 2500 with such frequency — more than 20,000 during his six years as George W. Bush’s secretary of Defense — that they became known as “snowflakes.” “The Unknown Known” is structured around Rumsfeld’s reading, at Morris’ request, from a number of these missives.
Sometimes these memos offer other bits of glib sophistry — “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is the most memorable — but if there is one that offers a key to Rumsfeld’s thinking, it is the notion that the U.S. was taken by surprise by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor because of “a failure of imagination.”
This fear of not being proactive enough in dealing with potential threats and parallel worries of having to explain why you weren’t to future investigators turn out to be a major factor in Rumsfeld’s passion for the war in Iraq. And though “Unknown Known” deals with other parts of the man’s career, including the Machiavellian maneuvers that were apparently business as usual in Richard Nixon’s inner circle, it is Iraq that is this film’s focus.
What is most interesting here is that, despite evidence to the contrary, Rumsfeld steadfastly refuses to consider the idea that anything could have been done differently. Asked about justifying the invasion by claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that were never found, Rumsfeld insists, “It was thought to be the best intelligence available.” Asked by Morris whether it would have been better not to go there at all, he responds with a stoic “Only time will tell.”
Though Rumsfeld and Morris do not go at each other like Ali and Frazier, there are moments when sparks do fly. When Rumsfeld says he never read the so-called “torture memos” about enhanced interrogation techniques, Morris can’t suppress a shocked “Really?” Asked about his “obsession” with Iraq, Rumsfeld quickly goes on the offensive. “Boy, you like that word” he replies, adding that his own view of himself is “cool, measured,” not obsessive at all.
Because both Rumsfeld and Morris are in command of large amounts of detailed material, the dialogue between them can be heavy going at times, a situation that is softened by Morris’ facility with imagery that is invariably artistic and even playful. It’s hard to believe a story this serious can be told in such an involving way, but that is one of this expert documentarian’s greatest gifts.
‘The Unknown Known’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle’s Monica 4, Santa Monica; Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood