The Unknown Known – Movie Review by Sean Kingston
Dir: Errol Morris
Running time: 103 mins.
Release Date: March 28th
There is a moment, in Charles Ferguson’s 2010 investigation into Wall Street practices, Inside Job, in which it dawns on economist (and former advisor to the Bush administration), Glenn Hubbard, that he isn’t being asked to detail the events of the 2008 crash, but rather to account for his contribution to the whole sorry mess. “You’ve got three minutes”, he warns Ferguson, “Give it your best shot.”
The challenge could serve as the tag line for Errol Morris’ exploration of the life and work of Former United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld; who, at 81, proves himself to be just as linguistically gifted a spin doctor as he was when he gave the 2002 speech regarding WMD’s in Iraq that lends the film its name. “…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.” Morris’ film attempts to structure itself around the omitted fourth scenario, The Unknown Known. In short, that which we think we know but do not.
There’s a particular joy in watching a master of craft at work. Here however, the master in the room is undoubtedly the one in front of the camera. Morris, renowned by now for coaxing his subjects into unintended candor and confession, never really comes close with Rumsfeld. Even when caught in a blatant lie about his own statements regarding Iraq’s nuclear capability, our star simply flashes that knowing grin and gracefully tap dances around the subject. It’s hard not to admire Rumsfeld; a look back at his early days in the capital shows a gentleman uniquely adept at playing the Washington game. This is the man, after all, who walked away from the Nixon administration without a scratch on his reputation.
But it is these skills, still razor sharp, that render the finished documentary little more than a tour through America’s recent history. The work is never less than interesting and Rumsfeld proves an engaging interviewee, but anyone hoping to find a man ready to bare his soul, will be left sadly wanting. This film is a spiritual brother of sorts to Morris’ 2003 work The Fog of War, which detailed war through the experiences of another former US Secretary of Defence, Robert S. McNamara. McNamara was explicit in his memoirs, “We were acting as war criminals”, and it made for compelling viewing. But he had time on his side; the disastrous legacy of the Vietnam War had slipped, in large part, into pop-culture references and sixties nostalgia. The consequences of his actions wouldn’t still be evening news when the film hit cinemas. Rumsfeld plays a much more defensive game, never faltering from the party line for a moment when interrogated about the decisions that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One gets the sense that there’s little to be gained for him in telling us something we don’t already know. Maybe he agreed to participate in the film simply to keep his claws sharp; more likely, is that he is keenly aware that the only trial his final administration will see is that of public opinion. Perhaps, in as much as he can, Rumsfeld is trying to place himself on the right side of history. “Why are you talking to me?” Morris eventually asks. Taking a moment to ruminate, Rumsfeld provides the film’s most prescient answer; “I guess we’ll find out”.