TIFF 2013: THE UNKNOWN KNOWN Review

     September 6, 2013

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In 2003 legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris finally won a long-deserved Oscar for his feature length interrogation of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during America’s unfortunate war in Vietnam. Ten years later, Morris has made a sequel of sorts about Donald Rumsfeld, the man who held the same position for the Bush administration during September 11th and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately this time the results aren’t nearly as satisfyingly remorseful. Instead, it feels like more spun truths and crocodile smiles from a man who specialized in those unique skills throughout his time in office. Fortunately, those qualities make The Unknown Known arguably just as fascinating as it’s sort of prequel, just in a very different way. Go on, hit the jump to find out why you lucky, lucky person.

Morris walks Rumsfeld through his entire career from his early days working under Nixon and Gerald Ford, where he and a young whippersnapper Dick Cheney sweet talked and kind of blackmailed their way into major positions of power. It’s all interesting stuff, but just like the audience, all Morris really wants to hear about is Rumsfeld’s time with spinning half truth for Bush, Cheney, and company and they get down to the nitty gritty pretty quickly. The man says some pretty amazing things like that he doesn’t believe anyone in the American public or Bush administration saw a connection between September 11th and Saddam Hussein before the war, or how he saw nothing unusual about taking a meeting with Cheney and the Saudi Ambassador (but not the president) to discuss the Iraq war before invasion. Yet, somehow, he always says these things with conviction and even more remarkably, it seems as though he actually believes his own baloney.

The title of the movie comes from an old memo that Rumsfeld sent out to his staff during his time as the Secretary Of Defense outlining the difference between known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and unknown knowns. It’s a bizarre collection of jargon that initially seems confusingly vague, yet somehow makes sense when you follow Rumsfeld’s twisted logic. It feels like Rumsfeld knows what he’s talking about (or is at least really good in faking it) and truly believes in hiding behind semantics to moralize anything. Perhaps it’s some vaguely sociopathic trait that he was born with or perhaps it was developed as a defense mechanism over the course of his political career. Either way, it’s clear that’s why Rumsfeld was the right man for his job with the Bush administration (if that makes any sense, I’m starting to sound like Rumsfeld just by talking about him). What isn’t clear is why Rumsfeld would ever submit himself to the Errol Morris treatment and when the filmmaker asks, he speaks for a while in a way that sounds like an answer without offering any explanation.

Throughout it all, Morris shoots in his usual style. Rumsfeld stares directly into the lens while spinning his yarns to connect directly with the viewer, while the director offers a variety of angles, stock footage, and gorgeously constructed monologues to turn a talking head into engaging cinema. Morris is one of the few true original directors responsible for creating a form that is entirely his own and he only seems to be growing into a better interviewer over time. Some might complain that he didn’t get much out of Rumsfeld in the way of remorse or compassion, but that’s kind of the point. Here’s a someone who is truly a politician first and human being second. A man who seems incapable of discussing certain subjects without toeing his party’s official line all these years later. The only weakness that cracks through his guarded exterior appears to be those classic American traits of vanity and camera whore-ism. This guy loves chatting with a camera in his face and fortunately this time he did it for Errol Morris, a filmmaker capable of turning that spin into a damning documentary. The best part is, Rumsfeld probably thinks he comes off great in the film. Audiences however, will hopefully know better and they get to make the final judgment call.

Grade: A

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