The Unknown Known – film review

One thing is a “known known” in The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s beguiling documentary about Donald Rumsfeld. If words were weapons, the Middle East’s trouble spots would be a smoking ruin. George W. Bush’s defence secretary unleashed more fissile polysyllables in the direction of the enemy than any war executive in history.

Rumsfeld manned up the word “mandarin”. The hard-thinking, bellicose, squinty-eyed person before the camera – this is a one-on-one marathon like Morris’s other defence secretary doc The Fog of War, featuring Robert “Vietnam” McNamara – defends both his war-making record and its wordsmithing style. To justify two foreign invasions, the Iraq/Afghanistan desk warrior spun and spun. His famous press conference about “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns” inspired the film’s title. He also said at an early stage in the WMD fiasco: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” (Guilty until proved innocent: by which time Iraq was overrun anyway.) More tersely he stated of war’s collateral-damage tragedies: “Stuff happens.”

Morris still finds him fascinating. So, in a grimly compelled way, do we. This is Alice in Wonderland’s hookah-smoking caterpillar, word-wreathing away atop his mushroom which – thank providence – never quite became a mushroom cloud. Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Dubya were a gung-ho trio. Probably only the first two men’s brain power held the third back from apocalypse. The Unknown Known shows Rumsfeld was ready, though, to secure America’s own survival at any cost destructive to others. Foreign incursion, regime change, Guantánamo . . . 

Morris should press more, we sometimes feel. There is no Rumsfeld “Sorry!” At other times we admire the patient paying out of the rope. Even if this man doesn’t hang himself, he gets tangled. At one moment – as if prophetically affected by the visual metaphors and graphics Morris will later put in his film (a literal “sea of words”, a swampland) – the ex-statesman cannot unscramble his own remembered pronouncements. He is defeated by the very phrase about “known knowns [etc]” that he had first laid before the American people as the weaponry of sound, invincible, western, democratic reasoning.

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