‘The Unknown Known’ Review

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This review was originally published during DOC NYC on November 14, 2013. It is being reposted now that the film is opening in theaters.

Two ghosts hover over The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s new film on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The first is the spirit of history itself, the entire weight of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy. The attacks of September 11, 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and all of the subsequent fallout press upon Morris’s lengthy conversation with Rumsfeld like an imaginary tribunal. The second ghost, however, is no less obvious. Back in 2004, the filmmaker won an Oscar for his previous conversation with a former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara. The Fog of War and The Unknown Known have an awful lot in common, from their major themes down to their very structure. Yet the older film is broader, more intriguing and, frankly, a better film.

It may seem unfair to compare Morris’s new film to its predecessor right out of the gate. It’s also unavoidable, precisely because Morris follows the template of the prior film so closely. Both are narrowly focused, built almost entirely from the footage of a single interview, with the illustrative addition of archival material and what one could call “images of metaphorical context.” Yet while McNamara was often breathtakingly open with Morris, Rumsfeld is much less inclined to show guilt or even apprehension over his actions at the Pentagon. This puts the documentarian in an awkward position, attempting to recreate the style and structure of his prior triumph with a different, more limited central interview.

It’s not as if Morris doesn’t try to push the film further. His conversation with Rumsfeld casts a very wide net, reaching as far back as his years in the Richard Nixon administration. This puts one particular theme in sharp relief: dishonesty. Rumsfeld got out of the Nixon White House just in time, but the legacy of high-powered lying persists in inflecting his years in the George W. Bush administration. Morris talks him through the September 11th attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, the veracity of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and more.

All the while Rumsfeld responds with philosophical platitudes. 9/11 was a “failure of imagination” on the part of the defense department, and the WMDs can be explained with an extended rhetorical game around the limits of knowing. In a famous 2002 press conference, of course, he alluded that the lack of information around those weapons might fall into the category of the “unknown unknown,” things that we do not know we do not know. He wouldn’t comment further, but the unsettling implication that the United States was going to war on a hunch stuck. Morris, later, shows him one of his own memos detailing another concept: the “unknown known.” This is something that we think we know but actually don’t. It would be tantamount to an admission of great ignorance, if Rumsfeld were less rubbery.

However, nothing is so simple. He takes the “unknown known” to mean different things at different moments of the film, sometimes in ways that exonerate him. This sort of “instant hypocrisy” happens throughout The Unknown Known. Rumsfeld occasionally begins to admit something like a mistake or a misjudgment, but when Morris tries to clarify the former Secretary acts almost surprised at the suggestion he said such a thing in the first place. Much of this must be the result of the film’s editing, as no live interview is likely to include such sudden reversals. It lends an immediacy to Rumsfeld’s slippery word jumbling, which we might miss in a looser film.

Morris also tries to express this charlatan-like dancing around the issues with a showcase of heavy metaphors cut into the interview footage. Memos overwhelm the screen, mimicking Rumsfeld’s use of voluminous words to avoid seriously answering questions. They become like snowflakes, borrowing the politician’s own term for his writings. Then Morris shows us actual snowflakes. Also included are vast overhead shots of the ocean and the swamp and a number of wide shots of empty cityscapes. The emphasis seems to be on the enormity of the ramifications of Rumsfeld’s actions, as well as the internal, psychological, rhetorical enormity that he uses to distance himself from them. These images are all dark, blunt and almost muffling.

Theoretically, this works. Rumsfeld spent years filling the Pentagon with words, and now that he’s left he continues to rely on vague, historically broad language to express and defend himself. It leaves his audience stuck in the mud, trudging ineffectively through a doldrum of platitudes like “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it,” or “Everything seems amazing in retrospect.” The problem is that Morris is stuck right alongside us, paddling to no avail. At one point the filmmaker even asks Rumsfeld why he agreed to the interview in the first place. The response? Not even Rumsfeld himself quite knows why he’s having this conversation. He clearly isn’t seeking the forgiveness of an angry nation, nor is he trying to set the record straight. He has no clear agenda, and Morris doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with that absence.

He could fill it in with outside information. Morris could have condemned Rumsfeld’s refusal to really examine his own actions by tossing in outside testimony and evidence. Yet that would change the character of the film entirely. Instead he simply allows the unanswered to sit unanswered. It isn’t enough. The strength of The Fog of War wasn’t simply that McNamara testified more honestly and directly but that this transparency allowed Morris to push the conversation even further. There is no next layer of questions possible in The Unknown Known, only a wall of self-satisfied words from a former secretary of defense who may very well just enjoy the attention. It doesn’t matter how many metaphors Morris uses to underline this. Whether in a swamp or under a flurry of snowflakes, we are still stuck.

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Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.