Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. (Nubar Alexanian)
Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris (The Fog of War) goes inside the mind of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, a documentary that takes a non-chronological look at the events and circumstances leading up to the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Morris foregoes the conventions of a typical interview and instead has Rumsfeld read and explain his “snowflakes”—the memos written by Rumsfeld in his fifty years in Congress, The White House, in business, and in his two stints at the Pentagon, among other things. Instead of grilling Rumsfeld with a slew of premeditated questions fabricated to shape a desired narrative, Morris asks Rumsfeld follow-up questions every time Rumsfeld reads a document to allow Rumsfeld to add context to his “snowflakes.”
Rumsfeld talks about his regrets when describing many of his “snowflakes,” which range from government security breaches, diplomatic mistakes, and even a tear-jerking story of the death of one particular soldier. He confesses the government’s real feelings on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction that were never found and why the government took the course it did regarding Hussein, and contextualizes his and the government’s decisions as if in search of public empathy.
Morris also goes back to talk about the Watergate scandal and Rumsfeld’s relationship with Richard Nixon, and the potential scenarios that nearly occurred which could’ve put a young Rumsfeld on a trajectory toward the Oval Office.
It’s important to know this documentary isn’t a Michael Moore or Alex Jones type of “expose” on the government’s actions. Although any movie concerning the government comes with an intended message to the viewer, this movie takes a more intellectual look at the events surrounding the war in Iraq and the 9/11 attacks.
Perhaps the only aspect of the movie in which Morris seems to manipulatively depict Rumsfeld in a negative way is when the camera focuses on him a little longer than needed until he makes some sort of awkward gesture or sinister-looking smile.
Rumsfeld is many things in this movie: he’s candid, matter-of-fact, uncontrived, and at times, the most interesting man in the world—or at least, in Washington. Rumsfeld’s honesty and openness makes the viewer wonder why he would ever agree to do this. What’s his end game, if the cost-benefit ratio of doing this documentary seems to be going against him?
Morris earned an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara about another former U.S. Secretary of Defense and his lack of foresight into the Vietnam War. The Unknown Known is very similar to that documentary.
This is a very recommendable movie for any enthusiast of political or military history, or anyone who just likes to watch a good sit-down interview. It never drags, it’s never dull, the interview goes in many interesting directions, and shows the complex Rumsfeld in many different lights. This is why it is worthy of four out of five stars.
The Unknown Known
Now playing in select theaters
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