The Unknown Known
2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Easily the most outspoken and controversial cabinet member of the “Bush 43” administration, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld provided endless fodder for news/political junkies, White House correspondents and anyone looking for something beyond staid and canned press briefings. Love him or hate him, you couldn’t help but respect Rumsfeld for his direct and frank speaking style and his innate ability to separate himself from typical administration higher-up mouth pieces. The man didn’t care what you thought of him and spoke his mind through a largely unfiltered sieve.
For those familiar with the documentary films of Errol Morris, Rumsfeld is the ideal subject for a Morris movie. Although unlikely to admit it, Morris shares many of Rumsfeld’s unabashed personality traits and his no BS approach to interviewing would seem to be an ideal match. While much of what Morris explores in “The Unknown Known” is illuminating, little of it comes through direct interviews where Rumsfeld takes on an unexpectedly guarded and measured posture.
Imagine Rumsfeld as a classic rock band going on stage to perform a series of greatest hits they’ve already played many times before. You get the same lyrics but it’s done with a certain rote, pro-forma feel. He’s reciting old thoughts that were great when first uttered but not so much the second (or third) time around. For a guy that somewhat shot from the hip — but with great calculation at the time — Rumsfeld must have felt like something akin to a circus seal rather than esteemed elder statesman.
For Morris fans, “The Unknown Known” might seem to too closely resemble the far-better, Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” from 2003 in which his subject was Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In “Fog” Morris was able to get McNamara to reconsider if not outright recant his position and actions regarding the Vietnam War and it proved to be beyond riveting. McNamara was a man rife with regret and top-loaded with the second guessing of decisions he made under insurmountable political pressure that, if given the chance, he would probably do over. In more ways than one could list, Rumsfeld is not McNamara and even with multiple prodding from Morris, Rumsfeld holds his ground regarding his position on and decisions made over the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
As good as he is at this type of thing, Morris never once gets Rumsfeld to back-peddle on past decisions and often comes across as a journeyman trying to outwit a master. The irony is that Rumsfeld — a man who eschewed political spin while in office — proves to be a master of it as a private citizen who is calmly aware of protecting/insuring his legacy. Rumsfeld does to Morris what Vladimir Putin is currently doing with Barack Obama — slaps him around like an ineffective chew toy.
Morris achieves his greatest success when chronicling Rumsfeld’s lead-up to the Bush 43 administration where he served under presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush 41. While Rumsfeld certainly toed the company line throughout his career, he also did so according to his own moral compass and ideological bearings. He was never one to fully hide his true perspectives and in a world in which politicians guard their every utterance, that’s extremely refreshing.
For a guy like Morris to get a guy like Rumsfeld to sit down and open up himself to questioning, Morris falls desperately short of getting something we’ve never heard before or something about the man we don’t already know. It’s a supremely missed and wasted opportunity. (Radius/TWC)