Errol Morris is probably aware that The Unknown Known is a weaker documentary than The Fog of War, but the pair deserve to be studied side by side less to scrutinize their maker than the chasm between the two very different men at each film’s center—and to reconcile both as United States secretaries of defense. Robert McNamara allowed Morris to interview him three decades after his heyday, but Donald Rumsfeld sits before Morris’s Interrotron seven short years after leaving office. If McNamara was testifying on-camera in the interest of history, Rumsfeld seems explicitly, and gamely, interested in clearing his name. The film can be seen as a boxing match between two very different certainties: Morris’s art against Rumsfeld’s own. And in his compensatory measures (b-roll, music, montage), Morris seems aware of the interviews’ lack of substance, but that is of course his star’s fault.
In other words, what resembles, for a few brief moments, a frank discussion emerges instead as a paranoid and confrontational PR offensive, somehow cut from 30 intricate hours of interviews, that reveals nothing as much as what Rumsfeld expected to do with the project. His folksy “realist” slogans ring like echoing movie-trailer voiceovers, as if his retirement years have seen him feebly trying to Malcolm Gladwell-ize neoconservatism. (They have.) You’ve probably already seen or read some of Rumsfeld’s jaw-dropping aphorisms—calling Pearl Harbor a “failure of the imagination,” claiming that “everything is amazing in retrospect,” and, most famously, that “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence or evidence of presence.” The film is less an autopsy of Rumsfeld’s lies than a pulpit for him to repeat most of them one last time, and viewers’ tolerance for Morris’s apparent sheepishness will hinge on their prior appreciation of the filmmaker’s investigative acumen. Unlike The Thin Blue Line, this isn’t a film that works miracles of due process.
The Unknown Known is also a (probably necessary) guilt trip back into the Bush administration. You’ll ask yourself why the press was, retrospectively, so soft on this guy, given the power he was wielding—and to behold him in soundbite-spitting motion is to half-remember. For young progressives of the future, the most panic-inviting moments of Morris’s film will be those where Rumsfeld’s bizarre gibberish actually congeals with today’s shared universal knowledge—which is to say, with history. The former secretary of defense tut-tuts to Morris that many of the Bush administration’s most earth-scorching policies (Guantanamo Bay, the PATRIOT Act, indefinite detentions, military commissions) have been kept, and in some cases even embraced, by Barack Obama. Morris registers this observation with a grandiloquent disappointment, editing Rumsfeld’s words off of a moss-covered oceanscape that stretches into infinity, Danny Elfman score pounding. In making this comment, Rumsfeld’s voice goes officious, suddenly severed from the heave-ho of his discussions with Morris. Like a mad scientist, all he can do at this point is ponder his creation.