Looking into Rumsfeld’s ‘knowns’ in new documentary

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Though the “The Unknown Known” tries to compose a meaningful portrait of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld through an interview between him and director Errol Morris, the documentary unfolds at Rumsfeld’s leisure.

In the film, Rumsfeld claims to be a simple and virtuous man whose amazing career merely fell into his lap. He began as a strapping young congressman and over time involved himself in several presidential administrations, wars and scandals. Rumsfeld occasionally offers anecdotes that show his softer, more intimate side, but these anecdotes do not actually make him more relatable. For instance, Rumsfeld says that one of his great ambitions in life was marriage, but the film doesn’t give the name of his wife or go into why he married her. Rumsfeld describes the hunt for Saddam Hussein but reveals nothing novel besides his own gratification. When he recounts the time everyone dogpiled president Gerald Ford after a bullet almost took his life, his eyes light up, and Rumsfeld becomes, for a moment, bashful like a little boy. His pressing smile, which creeps up again and again, suggests that we should accept him at face value.

The documentary itself is more interested in what Rumsfeld thinks of himself than who Rumsfeld is as an American political figure. The film touches on many different events but hardly reaches any depth. Absent are the deep explanations and inner turmoil one might expect from the man who climbed to the highest rungs of the executive branch, “approved” enhanced interrogation techniques and promoted a costly war in the Middle East.

Rumsfeld also explains his philosophy, which the film is named after. In politics, Rumsfeld says, there are “known knowns”: things we know we know. There are “known unknowns”: things we know we don’t know. There are “unknown unknowns”: things we don’t know we don’t know. And, finally, there are “unknown knowns”: things we think we know but actually don’t.

The word his philosophy reaches for is “ignorance.” Regardless, the documentary intersperses his exhausting philosophy, political feats and hoaky anecdotes with stunning cinematography. As Rumsfeld ruminates on torture, colonies of algae pan across the screen. A cryptic ocean appears in one scene, and in another, Washington is set as the world’s stage — a metropolis.

Though the film tries to bring Rumsfeld out of the shadows, he remains dodgy. This is partly the director’s fault. The method of inquiry — an interview — yielded much from Robert McNamara, whose remorse and confession compelled “The Fog of War.” Q&A, however, doesn’t work on Rumsfeld. If anything, the interview allows Rumsfeld to come out victorious. Morris’ questions allow the politician to wax poetically on his virtuosity and lack of political ambition. His Midwestern persona sometimes seems genuine and, at other times, theatrical. Judging from the way Rumsfeld speaks, he would have us believe he has spent the past few decades in the Midwest rather than in Washington. He calls the lawn around the Pentagon an “apron.” He conceptualizes his thinking as a trucker trying to avoid potholes and likens an event to chasing a rabbit.

It’s bothersome that his Midwestern rhetoric entertains and reassures. It asserts that Rumsfeld really is a simple Midwesterner with little interiority. And because he expresses no remorse or uncertainty, he must be innocent. Alternatively, his Midwestern rhetoric entertains our cynicism. The 21st century has wrought new technologies, forms of warfare, atrocities and thus, new forms of defense. The willingness of the Bush administration to adopt “enhanced” interrogation techniques mystifies Americans and compromises our international influence.

Ultimately, the interview glosses over his career. Rumsfeld’s answers to the final two questions — “What is your relationship to history?” and “Why did you choose to do this interview?” — underwhelm. Though the documentary is mildly confusing, it’s worth seeing. This might be the most personal exchange most Americans will have with the influential, enigmatic politician.

Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected].