As Errol Morris took the stage at The Bloor Cinema on Monday morning, he addressed the point that he’d just made “FOG OF WAR part 2”. It’s an easy leap of course, since both that film and his new offering THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, are candid portraits of two American Secretaries of Defence – both of whom presided over controversial military actions.
In Morris’ opinion, he had not in fact just made “THE FOG OF WAR part 2”, but had in fact just made “TABLOID part 2” – a follow-up to his last documentary about a beauty-queen-turned-kidnapper. It may seem like a bit of a leap to get from Joyce McKinney to Donald Rumsfeld, but the connection is an easy one: if you tell a series of lies enough times, to you, they will become the truth. It’s easy to see how both subjects fit into that same box.
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN looks at the career of Donald Rumsfeld. Elected to US Congress in 1962, he rose through the ranks fast, being brought in to President Richard Nixon’s administration in 1969. While he also served in President Gerald Ford’s administration, and did some slight advising for both Reagan and H.W. Bush, he is most well-known for being the Secretary of Defence for President George W. Bush. That term of office made him a point man after the 9/11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq.
The great thing about this film is the way Morris hands Rumsfeld the instrument and just lets him play. He doesn’t ask the typical questions, because he knew he would get the typical responses. Rumsfeld is out of office, but Morris knows full-well that the man still has too much at stake to sit down just ten years later and start admitting policy mistakes.
Instead, Morris lets Rumsfeld take the ball and run, focusing heavily on the barrage of memos that Rumsfeld sent through his years in office. As Rumsfeld dictates memo after memo, many things about him become clear. We see a man fluent in legalese, a man obsessed with semantics, a man so deep into the woods at time that he can’t see the forest from the trees, and perhaps most interestingly – a man who fails to take his own advice.
Rumsfeld is fascinating to listen to, and his folksy charm makes it easy to understand how he has stuck around as long as he his. Politics, remember, is not just about your professional track record, but about how likeable you are as a person. While Rumsfeld is generally vilified these days for his poor decision-making during his term of office, he is undeniably a “nice guy”…and the sort of person you could see selling unpopular decisions. This much is clear as he speaks straight to camera in typical Morris fashion.
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is a reference to a famous Rumsfeld soundbite, one that he actually botched. The idea is that there are things in life that you know, you just don’t know you know them. In Rumsfeld’s case, we’re left to wonder if he didn’t know that he knew certain things, or if he just forgot. It’s a pity, because if he did know that he knew – or certainly if he remembered – then things would have gone very differently in the world these last twelve years.