The Unknown Known
Dir. Errol Morris
Styles: documentary, etymological absurdism
Others: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Standard Operating Procedure, The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary
Links: The Unknown Known - Participant Media
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
For over three years, Donald Rumsfeld was the voice of the War in Iraq. While President Bush was bungling quotes and vexing reporters on a daily basis, various press secretaries all but pleading the fifth, and Dick Cheney, I imagine, was hiding in his undisclosed bunker, Donald Rumsfeld was the one guy in the Bush administration who would actually talk to the press. Now, don’t take this as a compliment, since it was more often than not an etymological orgy of the absurd than anything approaching the honest and full disclosure that this, the greatest capital-D Democracy in the world has of course always had. But damned if Rumsfeld didn’t leave everyone, at least in the moment, feeling like he had actually said something with his turns of phrase that were closer to snakes engorging their own tails than, say, facts, answers or sentences with actual substance beneath them. In this sense, he was, and remains at least in my mind, the most fascinating figure to emerge from those eight long Bush years.
When legendary documentary filmmaker and overt liberal Errol Morris discovered that Rumsfeld had written and recorded memos of nearly all of his thoughts (which he refers to as “snowflakes” due to the white paper they were initially written on) — not only from his five years in the Bush Administration which account for over 20,000 of them, but all throughout his years under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — Morris decided to sit him down and examine this master of words’ political history in his own words. At the start of the film, Morris has Rumsfeld read his most famous quote, which was in response to the simple question of how the administration “knew” there were WMDs in Iraq:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
This labyrinthine response is the perfect microcosm of the Rumsfeld public persona — a persona so firmly and absolutely guarded by a surface of infinite language that he wears as armor, wielding his words as weapons, with his ability to rephrase and transform questions to a shading of his own liking functioning like attack moves. Much like during his press conferences, when he is confronted with facts during The Unknown Known, such as that the overwhelming perception among Americans in 2003 was that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, we are met with that icy smile (which Morris’s wife accurately referred to as his Cheshire grin) and an absolute denial that that was true or that the administration in any way led the American people to think that way.
Yet, through most of this frustrating and fascinating film, Rumsfeld goes through his various snowflakes, which are wonderfully contextualized by Morris, and vehemently defends all of his thoughts and decisions, including his opinion on everything related to the War in Iraq and his belief that Guantanamo Bay is the best run prison in the world. Unlike Morris’s prior personal-political documentary, The Fog of War, here Rumsfeld shows none of Robert McNamara’s regrets or self-doubt. One gets the sense that there is no longer a difference between the Rumsfeld’s public and private personas; that he has been weaving these long, complex webs of words for so many decades that he has become his own biggest believer. Seinfeld’s George Costanza’s mantra, “It’s not a lie if you believe it,” could just as well be Rumsfeld’s.
Oddly enough, what remains most striking about The Unknown Known, especially for a film whose working title included The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld, is how little we ultimately know about Rumsfeld’s life and the impetus for his political ideology. This is not a result of Morris never pressing him on issues or examining him past thoroughly enough, but of Rumsfeld’s stone-faced nature, his ability to never break character or give even a tenth of an inch even when confronted with indisputable evidence that reject his claims, instead diverting questions by plunging into etymological and philosophical non sequiturs. Throughout the film, Rumsfeld remains the great unknown known, that politician who we’ve all heard speak for hours upon hours; even being cornered for 100 minutes, he remains as much of enigma as always. Perhaps he simply is a corporate shill dead set on the continued expansion of the military industrial complex, but the conviction with which is speaks, especially when he’s speaking about nothing and his relentless implacability make it difficult to think he doesn’t firmly believe in the causes he supports.
The Unknown Known shows that Rumsfeld is as impenetrable and vexing as his most famous quote and full of more unknown unknowns than any American political figure this millennium. Ironically, the only time Rumsfeld gives any ground to Morris is at the very end of the film when the director calls him out on a contradiction in his recent definition of “known unknowns,” to which Rumsfeld answers that he originally did get it wrong. Morris soon follows this up with a harmless question out of sheer curiosity, asking him why he even agreed to do this film. After the briefest hesitation, Rumsfeld answers, “You know, Errol. I don’t know.” But even if Rumsfeld doesn’t know, it is at least in part his undeniable fascination with language and whether or not Morris is on the other side of the fence, the opportunity to sit and obsess over 40-plus years of his own words was too tempting for him to pass up. If the film teaches us anything about Donald Rumsfeld, it’s that he loves to hear himself talk. That may just be the only known known we can come away with.