Donald Rumsfeld stares straight at the camera and smiles a lot in “The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld,” the latest single-interview documentary from Errol Morris, but his cheery demeanor never manages to convince. Revisiting turf he last explored with another portrait of a disgraced former defense secretary, the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War,” Morris also retreads some of the same murky ground of military corruption as his Abu Ghraib portrait “Standard Operating Procedure.” In this case, however, the feature-length interview is largely dominated by his eccentric subject’s meandering convictions, tenuous regrets and bureaucratic doublespeak, resulting in a peculiar movie seemingly at war with itself.
There’s no doubting Morris’ presence in “The Unknown Known,” both as the aggressive interrogator behind the lens and through the darkly witty aura of mystery he uses to enshroud Rumsfeld’s testimonies. Aided by a typically first-rate score by Danny Elfman, the documentary creates an ominous atmosphere to frame Rumsfeld’s unsurprisingly disingenuous and frequently digressive anecdotes as the aging government official recounts his final days in the Bush Administration with a mixture of pragmatism and naïveté.
Strengthening the sense that the movie virtually exists inside Rumsfeld’s headspace, Morris has his subject read one of the many thousands of memos he wrote during his Pentagon days, which Rumsfeld still refers to as “snowflakes” because of the white paper they were distributed on — as good an excuse as any for Morris to routinely cut to a slo-mo shot of a snowglobe containing the Washington Monument. It’s an endearing image the first time, but its continuing appearance echoes the void of new ideas or information that would turn “The Unknown Known” into a complex record of its subject’s career.
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For those with the stamina to revisit the series of half-truths and tactical blunders of the Bush Administration that led to the start of the Iraq War and continued with its disastrous execution, “The Unknown Known” provides an infuriating flashback to Rumsfeld’s dysfunctional leadership without making much a case for any of his virtues — save, perhaps, for some element of charisma that managed to sustain him through the years. While he does recall his election to Congress at age 30 and initial defense post in 1975, Morris mainly focuses on recent events. Without dropping his oddly upbeat delivery, Rumsfeld constantly prevaricates and falls back on abstractions rather than recognizing many of his errors. In essence, “The Unknown Known” puts a literal closeup on the face of denial.
However, as Rumsfeld continually repeats his various ethos with his usual folksy demeanor, Morris gradually maps out the defense secretary’s thought patterns, making it clear that he tends to put confounding principles ahead of rational decision-making. The clearest example comes at the very beginning, when Morris reads the snowflake memo that gives the movie its title, a reference to “things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.” At first, the convoluted assertion sounds like a roundabout means of discussing the bad intelligence regarding the presence of nuclear weapons in Iraq, but Rumsfeld later attempts to revise the statement and change its particulars. More committed to dispensing wisdom than thinking it through, Rumsfeld comes across like a wannabe sage still lost in the labyrinth of his miscalculations.
A depressing epilogue to the Bush years, “The Unknown Known” lacks enough empirical weight to elaborate much on a story now widely understood. Instead, Morris gives us a window into the fog of war before it has cleared up. Rather than providing specifics when asked about the intelligence failings that allowed 9/11 to occur, Rumsfeld chalks it up to “a failure of imagination.” Discussing the infamous decision to invade Iraq on the basis of reports that turned out to be unfounded, he argues that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” And on and on.
Over the course of 106 minutes, Rumsfeld’s rambling assertions grow exhausting, particularly because Morris never manages to direct them toward a larger argument. Unlike “The Fog of War,” where Vietnam architect Robert McNamara had some 30 years to contemplate his misdeed and reflect on them with a protracted philosophical perspective, Rumsfeld seems as though he’s still living through his delusions and never manages much in the way of self-analysis.
Which isn’t to say that Morris doesn’t try. When Rumsfeld confesses he’s never been to Guantanamo Bay, Morris spouts “Really?” loudly behind the camera, but Rumsfeld doesn’t flinch. He’s similarly resolute when Morris challenges him on the baffling assertion that most Americans didn’t conflate Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the only time Rumsfeld allows for the possibility that he screwed up is when he recalls multiple attempts to resign in the wake of Abu Ghraib, but even then, he discusses that decision as if were a strategic move rather than a sincere acknowledgement of culpability.
In its closing scenes, “The Unknown Known” adopts a topical edge by implication. Rumsfeld practically boasts that many of security measures put in place during the Bush Administration — the Patriot Act chief among them — remain in place today. It’s enough to turn this unsettling immersion into administrative incompetence into a nightmarish wakeup call. Rumsfeld may no longer hold the keys to the Pentagon, but his legacy continues to influence American power structures, and as “The Unknown Known” makes clear, his confidence has yet to wane.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With mixed word of mouth and a subject few audiences want to consider, “The Uknown Known” may struggle to succeed in theaters as it expands nationwide and hits VOD this Friday. But the elevated profile of the film’s director and star may invite just enough morbid curiosity to yield healthy VOD returns.
A version of this review was published during the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.