In Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” the shadowy figure David Ferrie says of the Kennedy assassination, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.”
That also could describe the mind of Donald Rumsfeld, the former two-time secretary of defense who served Presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush 43 over four decades. Rumsfeld enjoyed jousting with the press as secretary of defense under “W,” and he clearly likes being the center of attention in “The Unknown Known,” where he holds court with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
It’s too bad so little not already known is revealed.
The format is a chat as opposed to an interrogation, and Rumsfeld – given the brash and combative style he was fond of projecting in the press room – comes across as more engaging than expected. The man who once said of Iraq, “We know they have WMD. There isn’t any debate about it,” also avoids being pinned down on this and most other issues.
It may be because Morris doesn’t seem intent on doing so. He catches Rumsfeld contradicting himself just once, when he’s seen telling reporters that Saddam Hussein had a connection to al-Qaida after denying to Morris that Bush officials had ever said any such thing.
Morris is more interested in a character study, and Rumsfeld, filmed in portraiture, is always at the ready to obfuscate rather than illuminate. The film’s title comes, fittingly enough, from Rumsfeld’s most famous sound bite, in which he spoke of “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”
Morris, who intersperses Rumsfeld with film clips, creative graphics and dreamy photography, begins with his subject talking about the Afghan and Iraq wars. He then shifts to a chronological and often interesting exploration of Rumsfeld’s long résumé, which includes being the youngest secretary of defense (Ford) and the oldest (Bush), and serving as Ford’s chief of staff before being succeeded by his deputy, one Dick Cheney.
Rumsfeld spoke constantly into a Dictaphone, resulting in more than 20,000 memos – what he called “snowflakes” – during his six-year stint as Defense Department chief under Bush. That paper trail and the historical events they often addressed are starting-off points for Morris’ even-handed inquiries.
Morris, who first drew attention for the acclaimed film “The Thin Blue Line” in 1988, took a similar conversational approach 10 years ago with Robert McNamara, defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during the Vietnam War. In “The Fog of War,” McNamara expressed conflicted feelings over his key involvement in that horrific war – even going as far as saying he had acted as a war criminal.
Unlike McNamara – but very much like Bush – Rumsfeld reveals no self-reflection or inner conflict over the path of destruction the Afghan and Iraq wars left in their wake – or the doctored intelligence that enabled them to happen.
No surprise there, either.
the Unknown known
Director: Errol Morris
Running time: 103 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for war footage
The lowdown: Former two-time Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discusses his political career, including his role in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.