The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris
Starring Donald Rumsfeld
There are known unknowns — that is, things that you know you don’t know. Back in 2003, Robert McNamara was for me, an unknown when I saw him standing awkwardly in a khaki raincoat on the poster for The Fog of War. I had at best a very vague idea of who he was, and I had never even heard of Errol Morris, the film’s director.
When I watched the documentary, I was blown away by Morris’s unique style of interviewing, his masterful use of archival footage in storytelling, and the mesmerizing music by Philip Glass. Furthermore, through his introspection and exchange with Morris, I was able to empathize with Robert McNamara and his plight as a real human being cast as a historical figure remembered unfavorably for his infamous role. Since then, The Fog of War has become my favorite documentary of all time.
Unlike many viewers, I watched The Fog of War without prejudice — I had the advantage of coming to know McNamara from scratch through the documentary. I had not decided beforehand that he was behind the system that sent thousands of American to a pointless war that resulted in the death of millions.
McNamara came across as a sincere, extraordinarily intelligent man that served his country in a time of need the best way he thought possible. Seeing the former Secretary of Defense as a human being first and historical figure second is something I retain to this day. Through the documentary, I developed empathy for McNamara, to such an extent that I felt a loss the day he died in 2009.
There are also known knowns — that is, things you know you know. Long before he came within the reach of Errol Morris, Donald Rumsfeld was very well known to me. I knew his face, his smile, his voice. Since I use interviews of him discussing the Iraq War as examples in a doctoral-level lecture I teach about interviewing for qualitative data collection, I knew the condescending, passive-aggressive way in which he reacts to probing questions and contrary opinions, turning on his interviewer while evading the substance of the inquiry.
And through the study of these interviews, I also knew of his characteristic self-complacency and deep cynicism. He tries to absolve himself of any fault, recasting facts in a more favorable light, even if it means twisting reality to the point of perjury.
Since I keep track — and try to make sense — of current events, I knew the role he played in the Bush administration’s path to war with Iraq. (If you don’t, read the CBS News article “Plans For Iraq Attack Began On 9/11”.) And since Iraq is my generation’s Vietnam, I thoroughly despise Rumsfeld.
A few months ago, when I found out that Rumsfeld had agreed — for reasons incomprehensible to me — to sit down in front of Errol Morris’s ominously-named Interrotron (an inquisitional machine that seems the offspring of a Catholic confessionary and a photographer’s studio) — I was filled with childish joy.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Sith Lord of question-evasion, would finally meet his match in Errol Morris, the Jedi Master of bare-your-soul interviewing. But my joy was short lived. When I started watching the documentary, it became clear rather early that Morris was not only not confronting Rumsfeld on his confidently-delivered fiction, but was allowing the former Secretary of Defense to take control of the interview, to use it as an open microphone to cast himself in his own image.
“Unknown unknowns” are not absent from the documentary. “Unknown unknowns,” as Rumsfeld explains to us, are things we didn’t know we didn’t know. There are new things I learned by watching this film, like the fact that Bush Sr. at one point considered Rumsfeld as his running mate for the Presidency.
But there is little value in these trivia lessons. I did not find them fulfilling, and when I was done watching the film, I felt nothing. There was no confrontation of the man, no vindication of the truth, no elucidation of the facts. It took me two days of rumination to realize the profound genius of Errol Morris. The film, I understood later, is not about confronting the former Secretary of Defense, but about revealing one particular unknown.
“Unknown knowns,” as Rumsfeld defines them in one of his countless memos, are things you thought you knew but did not. Near the end of the film, Rumsfeld forgets this definition, and renounces it live in front of the camera, redefining “unknown knowns” instead as things you didn’t know you already knew.
The purpose of Morris’s documentary, reminiscent of a chess game by Capablanca, started to reveal itself to me around this point. For sure, this was not the interview I was hoping for, where Rumsfeld is probed about the fatidic decisions he took as Secretary of Defense. Those interviews have already taken place, with no fruits — in them, Rumsfeld doesn’t give up one inch, displaying his mastery of issue-evasion and his word-based fact-twisting. Instead, the purpose of Morris’s documentary was to allow Rumsfeld to paint his own portrait, to build his own cathedral, to erect his own monument, using his own words, in as many words as he wanted.
In doing so, the inevitable result is that Rumsfeld comes across the way he wants, in his own terms, in his chosen light. He projects the persona he has constructed, and which he wants history to buy. But you can feel he secretly knows it is disingenuous. Even more importantly, you realize you already knew he knew it was disingenuous.
That is the true, hidden meaning of The Unknown Known. Morris anticipated that there are only so many lies a person can take. After about an hour of misdirection and cynical smiles, the viewer is finally forced to awaken, like from a nightmare, to the reality of the farce.
You wonder, like the movie poster, “Why is this man smiling?” And then you discover that you already know the answer — he takes you for a fool. And the reason Morris played along becomes evident — he gave Rumsfeld just enough rope to hang himself.