Unknowing me, unknowing you – The Unknown Known review (Sydney Film Festival)

The Unknown Known

By Simon Miraudo
June 6, 2014

Not even Errol Morris‘ infamous Interrotron – a camera-rig that gazes right into the subject’s freaking soul – can pierce an unyielding Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. Morris’ latest documentary isolates the former U.S. Secretary of Defence and sees him grilled on topics ranging from the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 to the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq in the early aughts, as well as his tenure under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and finally, George W. Bush. Though Rumsfeld is a fascinating figure, do not come to this looking for his mea culpa. Do, however, come looking for an especially animated Morris getting more and more frustrated – to the point of questioning why Rumsfeld agreed to the damn documentary in the first place – as the film progresses.

Nonetheless, there are worse people to deliver a history lesson on the last few decades of America’s military actions than one of its architects and a world class documentarian. The title comes from Rumsfeld’s most famous declaration: characterising the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor as a “failure of imagination” on the United States’ part, he cautioned the Bush administration – and eventually the White House Press Corps – of the “known knowns” (what they know they know), “known unknowns” (what they know they don’t know), and “unknown unknowns” (what they don’t know they don’t know). The most revealing part of The Unknown Known, and what Morris repeatedly presses Rumsfeld on to no avail, is that he is effectively describing his original, inaccurate belief of WMDs in Iraq and claims of Saddam Hussein’s culpability in 9/11 as the invention of a nation armed with a good imagination, but bad intelligence, and how dangerous that can be too.

The Unknown Known

The Interrotron – not to mention Morris’ love of letting his interviewees stew in silence after every answer – either gives subjects enough rope to hang themselves or helps them find absolution. In The Fog of War, another former Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, spoke with clarity and regret regarding the Vietnam War, recontextualising his entire reign (even if he did ultimately dodge responsibility). In Tabloid, beauty queen/accused kidnapper Joyce McKinney (who, I should note, still occasionally calls me, four years after an abandoned interview) only buried herself deeper in a web of incredible lies. The Interrotron is no match for Rumsfeld, however, a veteran of both public service and public relations, and someone who notoriously dictated enough memos to fill a literal Raiders of the Lost Arkstyle archive. He’s careful with his words. That also means he is denied The Interrotron’s healing powers. There is no recontextualising of his reign. There is no pity to be derived from the sight of him floundering under an avalanche of bulls***. It just never happens.

Morris makes his own personal commentary with some crafty editing choices, and by including some amusing snide remarks from the Press Corps during Rumsfeld’s many briefings, turning them into his own snarky chorus. Danny Elfman’s imposing, impish score paints the former Secretary as some Rumpelstiltskin figure; his frequent frozen, open-mouthed grins (resembling the comedy/tragedy masks) completing the picture. But Rumsfeld controls the message here, just as he tried in the 2000’s, and for all of The Unknown Known‘s admirable authorship, it sometimes feels like little more than a deluge of long-considered strategic thoughts that were long ago revealed in Rumsfeld’s memos. He takes no blame, nor does he shift it. When it comes to the matter of his firing, or, perhaps a lower point, the leak of the Abu Ghraib photos showing prisoners being tortured in truly cruel and unusual ways, he points to his bureaucratic paper trail of oblivious memos – a “blizzard” as he describes them later –  to stress how non-evil his intentions at the time were.

When asked if the Iraq War was a mistake, Rumsfeld says only that “time will tell,” unwilling to accept – or unknowing – that time has indeed passed, and has largely told too. The Unknown Known is unable to punish or absolve him. Maybe neither was intended. Either would have made the movie invaluable. Though it does humanise him, much of what’s covered in Morris’ doco falls into the category of “known knowns,” and, as Rumsfeld himself might even tell you, those things can’t always be trusted.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

The Unknown Known plays the Sydney Film Festival June 8, 2014.

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