Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: The Unknown Known


Subject: Donald Rumsfeld, Master of Snowflakes

Out of all the features playing at this year’s Fantastic Fest, Errol Morris’s documentary The Unknown Known may be the most peculiar selection. It doesn’t fit the niche of what the festival is all about. Instead, it serves as a way for the fest to look beyond its cabinet of curiosities and present a picture that’s more arcane. And the mystery is derived from a subject that acts like your steely-eyed grandfather, able to spin a yarn full of bemusement.

Former Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld, now 81 years of age, served under two presidential administrations, most recently with George W. Bush. In the mid-‘70s he performed the same duties for Gerald Ford, and was the youngest to ever hold such a position. Rumsfeld resigned in 2006, having spent more than thirty years of his life in the political limelight. Yet during the heights of the war in Iraq, leading the crusade against Saddam Hussein’s WMD program as well as the largest manhunt in human history for Osama Bin Laden, Rumsfeld became appointment viewing on CSPAN, his press conferences allowing him to command the attention of the convening press. Today a frequent contributor to FOX News, Rumsfeld agreed to sit down for Morris and be the subject of his latest documentary, The Unknown Known.

The title is taken from a press briefing Rumsfeld did back in February 2002 where he was questioned about the absence of evidence in linking Iraqi government with supplying WMDs to terrorist outfits. Rumsfeld remarked:

There are known knowns; 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.

An “unknown known,” as Rumsfeld explains to Morris, is “there are things we think we know that we do not.” Such clever wordplay, almost as if Rumsfeld took a class in Orwellian Newspeak. Morris would prove this point by having the former Secretary read aloud some of his former memos.

Having written approximately 20,000 memos (or as he calls them, “snowflakes”) serving under George W. Bush, Rumsfeld would be the first to say he probably helped clear hundreds of tree acres in the production of memo printing paper. Not all the memos were wordy; some only asked single questions about the Oxford definition of a particular word. This was his subtle way to make a point, not to infer that his office was without a proper dictionary.

Throughout the documentary Errol Morris tries to pin Rumsfeld down on his inconsistencies while in office – even providing proof to the contrary – yet the former secretary is able to wriggle free all the while sitting comfortably in front of the camera. It’s quite amazing, really. Like watching a tennis match only to have it become a chess stalemate.

You don’t work in Washington for thirty-plus years without learning ways to get out of a gunfight when you only have a knife at your disposal. Rumsfeld stares down Morris’s loaded barrel (his camera) and sidesteps allegations with key phrases like “failure of imagination” on part of the US government for attacks on Pearl Harbor and the fall of Saigon. As defense secretary he didn’t want something like that happen. But, as he remarks, the inevitability of conflict leads to conflict; or when you attempt peace, plan for war.

With only seven years out of office and Middle East still a hotbed of activity I think The Unknown Known is arriving too soon in wanting to have an insightful documentary from one of the architects of the conflict. At least with The Fog of War, Morris’s 2003 doc on former Secretary of War Robert McNamara, decades had passed, giving the man plenty to mull over (the Vietnam War, particularly) when it came to making decisions in the middle of conflict.

That’s not to say The Unknown Known isn’t a good documentary, it is, but Morris should have known his subject better. He doesn’t ask any real hard-hitting or truth-seeking questions; he seems a little enamored with the grandfatherly Rumsfeld. As such Morris is unable to get the big revelation he was probably looking for.

Where the documentary works best is in the procedural aspect. The amount of work to pour over all those collected memos, trying to get inside the head of the former Secretary of War, must have been laborious. It gets us that much closer to the man, but not close enough to exploring the war in Iraq.

Writer/Director: Errol Morris
Notable Cast: Donald Rumsfeld

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