“The Unknown Known” (2014)
Donald Rumsfeld is one of the most fascinating political figures of the last 50 years. Besides serving four terms in Congress, Rumsfeld was the youngest person to serve as the Secretary of Defense (1975-1977 under President Gerald Ford) and the oldest (2001-2006 under President George W. Bush). Academy Awarding winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris points his camera at Rumsfeld in this portrait of a man who was in government when so many important events happened.
Using Rumsfeld’s own memo’s (Rumsfeld estimates he wrote over 20,000 of them in the years under President Bush) as starting material for each subject, it gives us an inside look on how he sees the world and the United States place in it. The film starts out with one of Rumsfeld’s memos dealing with “the unknown known,” which he defines as “The Unknown Known are thing you know which turns out you do not.”
The film centers on the two tours that he did as Secretary of Defense, especially his time serving under Bush. Morris shoots Rumsfeld strait on, almost always in close-up with very dramatic lighting. It almost makes Rumsfeld appear as a college professor in for a talk with a favorite student. Morris (always off camera) asks Rumsfeld a number of questions but rarely follows up on the questions when Rumsfeld evades or doesn’t really answer the question that was asked.
A number of subjects in the film are covered, such as Watergate (Rumsfeld didn’t fit in with the Nixon staff and was shipped off to be an ambassador to NATO), the Ford administration, and the big elephant in the room, 9/11 and the Iraqi war. The film intersperses shots of Rumsfeld with news footage, to give each subject some historical context. Rumsfeld does talk at length about each subject but sometimes you feel as though you are not getting the whole story and, unfortunately, Morris never really goes after Rumsfeld to expound on his answers.
There are some startling claims made by Rumsfeld during the film. One is on the subject of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Rumsfeld makes it seem like that notorious prison was the best run prison in the whole system and that not one person was water boarded by the military. He does admit that the CIA may have water-boarded three people and that other means were used to make prisoners give up information.
Rumsfeld talks about 9/11 which seems to be a subject close to his heart (he was in the Pentagon when the airliner hit it). He talks about how the military and the intelligence communities were taken by surprise by the attacks, calling it a “failure in imagination.” He also covers the subjects of the hunt for both Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
The Unknown Known is an interesting film about a very sure and dynamic personality. I just wish that it had been more hard hitting and that Errol Morris had questioned Rumsfeld to give us more detailed and precise answers. Its a film that you leaving thinking, I didn’t get the whole story but only the story the subject wanted me to get. My Rating: Bargain Matinee
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The film is playing in Atlanta exclusively at Lefont Sandy Springs