Anyone who comes away from viewing director Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known” without a keen appreciation for how good a liar former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is, they surely suffer from what the doc’s central figure refers to as a “failure of imagination.”
A spiritual successor to Morris’ “The Fog of War,” this time out the chronicling of a man who helped shape history isn’t so much about better understanding the decision-making — as Morris did with the late Robert McNamara in “Fog” — but better understanding one of the key decision-makers. The problem with that is that Rumsfeld treats many of the on-screen interviews he has with Morris with the same level of waggish combativeness as he used in his press briefings at the Pentagon, many of which are dissected in the film.
Indeed, the title of the documentary comes from a very skilful bit of obfuscation where he completely side-stepped a direct question about evidence supporting the invasion of Iraq – evidence most viewers will know was fabricated or never existed in the first place, yet Rumsfeld still finds rhetorical room to dance around the subject.
The nature of the distrusting back-and-forth between Morris and Rumsfeld undercuts any sense of liaise-faire documentarianism some directors attempt craft. While not as overtly partisan as the work of a Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza, Morris does not back away from re-contextualizing the misdirection from Rumsfeld.
This is aided in part by Morris’ decision to have Rumsfeld dictate many of his “working documents” – memos, dictations and other notes that Rumsfeld never intended to become public record over the years. In one case, Morris all but spells out that “Iraq” is the redacted word from a strategic memo about regime change for nations harboring terrorists – of course, this is from a document that long preceded the Bush administration’s public push for war.
Careful viewers will witness something incredible across the course of “The Unknown Known,” which is this: As good a liar Rumsfeld is shown to be, he is not without what poker players refer to as a “tell.” Morris’ camera catches a glimmer of a smirk coming across Rumsfeld’s face — which Rumsfeld quickly suppresses and replaces with a scowl — after he carefully constructed a response after being shown that his memory of public opinion about Saddam Hussein’s connections to the Sept. 11 attacks is woefully lacking.
But perhaps the clearest signal that Morris is dealing with someone with a bit more to hide that McNamara is in emphasizing the concept of “the swamp.” To Rumsfeld, this was the policy of staying out of regions where U.S. forces could get entrapped in prolonged conflicts (i.e. the Middle East) with no easy exit – a policy that he reversed in the post-9/11 Pentagon. But perhaps to Morris, this concept of the swamp applies to grilling Rumsfeld with the expectation that his focal point won’t likely reveal any smoking guns or deeper truths.
The only deeper truth to be gleaned from “The Unknown Known” is just how far someone such as Rumsfeld will go to muddy the waters – part of it surely to protect his own reputation, but you get the sense that to a large degree there’s gamesmanship involved. The film is akin to watching an expert poker player work over his opponent, and Morris does a comparably expert job of showing what was being gambled and what is still at stake in the wake of Mr. Rumsfeld’s time in U.S. government.
“The Unknown Known” – one hour, 30 minutes. Four stars out of five. Now playing at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver.