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The Unknown Known – documentary offers no justification but lots of political rhetoric

The-Unknown-Known Errol Morris documentary on Donald RumsfeldThe Unknown Known, Errol Morris’ interview with American politician and principal architect of the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld, adds little to our memory of the politician’s performances at press conferences, but vividly conveys how one man’s self-delusion and self-importance came to change the course of American history.

Fancy visuals and a stirring musical accompaniment by Danny Elfman evoke the same cinematic quality characteristic of Morris’ other work, especially the Thin Blue Line, which studies the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer from multiple points of view. And like the Thin Blue Line, Morris again directs us to the scene of a crime, albeit a much larger one.

Fascinatingly, the film is structured around Rumsfeld’s memos – his “snowflakes”. Tens of thousands of statements composed as a congressman and an advisor to four different Presidents – twice as Secretary of Defense – the memos are a unique framework for the film, allowing key historical moments to be contextualised while also providing Rumsfeld’s own personal draft of history. Not history as it was, but how Rumsfeld sees it.

The point of departure for the documentary and the title refer to a statement issued by Rumsfeld in February 2002, in response to the lack of evidence linking the government in Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

In the film, however, Rumsfeld adds “the unknown knowns” to the mix, explaining it as “things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.”


The convoluted nature of the statement is no anomaly in Rumsfeld’s world, and throughout the course of the documentary contradictory maxims are rife: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war” or “Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes”. Rumsfeld’s verbal deflection parries even the best of Morris’ blows.

One of the documentary’s strongest elements is Morris’ decision to acknowledge his subject as his equal, not an object, target or tool. He avoids taking a politically partisan stance against his subject, questioning him in a jokey friendly manner, which rarely betrays his outrage.

More than a picture of the man, we get a study of political rhetoric and professional obfuscation and, unfortunately, among all the evasion and rhetoric, real evidence remains buried.

What is also absent is a sense of catharsis, which the Fog of War, Morris’ Oscar-winning interrogation of another former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, managed to achieve in its subject’s openness. Rumsfeld is unapologetic, never departing from his own self-delusion and refusing to give anything away.

More than an investigative expose The Unknown Known ends up being expository as the politician talks us through his decisions without ever trying to justify them.

The Unknown Known is released in UK cinemas on 21 March 2014 – to find a screening or to get more information on this documentary, please visit the film’s official website.

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