The Unknown Known | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Please support our work!

Donate  Advertise
Donald Ducks: Rumsfeld deflects, dodges and deceives his way through 103 minutes of questioning in the latest from legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris

Donald Ducks: Rumsfeld deflects, dodges and deceives his way through 103 minutes of questioning in the latest from legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris

The Unknown Known 

Published March 19, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

The Fog of War (2003) ranks with the great political documentaries of all time. Errol Morris earned an Academy Award for his portrait of Robert McNamara, the regret-ridden former Secretary of Defense regarded as the architect of the Vietnam War. The filmmaker's latest offers a sequel of sorts with its examination of another military mastermind's imprint on history. This time, though, Morris' attempts to penetrate the delusions and defenses of Donald Rumsfeld are hindered less by fog than by a succession of smoke screens.

Reviewers have suggested that The Unknown Known, which will screen on March 24 and 28 at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, isn't as fine a film as Fog. They note that Morris fails to crack his subject, to make Rumsfeld concede to having second thoughts — in some cases, any thoughts — about the role he played in causing and botching the Iraq War. This critique misses the point. The wholesale absence of honest appraisal, self-awareness or contrition doesn't reflect the picture's shortcomings. It reflects Rumsfeld's.

The youngest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history, appointed by Gerald Ford (there's a Chevy Chase joke in there somewhere) and again by the elder Bush, Rumsfeld has been around the Beltway block. Morris fills in any gaps in the popular memory regarding how he scaled the pinnacle of power.

Rumsfeld's idea of a ripping yarn is a practically knee-slapping account of the 1975 Sarah Jane Moore assassination attempt, after which he and a Secret Service agent pushed the president into his limo and threw themselves on him. The punch line? "Suddenly I hear a muffled voice: 'Hey, you guys are heavy.'"

Suitably, though, the movie begins and finishes with Iraq. On this topic, Rumsfeld proves as frustrating an interview for the audience as for the director. Raising issue after perfectly reasonable issue, Morris is detectably dumbfounded by the deflections, word games and bald-faced denials of reality his questions elicit. The 81-year-old Rumsfeld's eyes twinkle. He grins that Cheshire cat grin. And he lies like a rug. You want to reach through the screen and grab him by the throat. Sorry, it's true.

In a typical sequence, Morris suggests the White House wanted the public to believe Saddam Hussein was connected with Al Qaeda and 9/11. Rumsfeld adopts a look of puzzlement. "Oh, I don't think so," he replies, "I don't remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that." Next: a clip of a typical Rumsfeld press conference — equal parts briefing and standup performance — from February 2003. A reporter quotes Hussein's assurance to the U.S. that "Iraq has no WMD ... and no relationship with Al Qaeda." "And Abraham Lincoln was short," the Secretary of Defense says with a chuckle.

Time after time, Morris backs Rumsfeld into corners. If the legendary director's latest falls short, it's in his hesitation to go for the gotcha moment. Who knows why Morris held back? Maybe he felt Rumsfeld's prevarications and empty rhetoric spoke for themselves. When confronted with the fact that Saddam didn't have WMDs after all, Rumsfeld quips, "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" with that maddening grin.

The Unknown Known is both artful cinema and an invaluable historical document. When future generations wonder how we made such a mess of things in the Middle East at the dawn of the 21st century, they'll have only to look on that infuriatingly self-satisfied face and listen to Rumsfeld twisting the truth. It's not a pretty picture, just an immeasurably important one.

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

About The Author

Rick Kisonak

Rick Kisonak

Rick Kisonak is a film reviewer for Seven Days.

Speaking of Movie Review, Donald Rumsfeld


Comments are closed.

From 2014-2020, Seven Days allowed readers to comment on all stories posted on our website. While we've appreciated the suggestions and insights, right now Seven Days is prioritizing our core mission — producing high-quality, responsible local journalism — over moderating online debates between readers.

To criticize, correct or praise our reporting, please send us a letter to the editor or send us a tip. We’ll check it out and report the results.

Online comments may return when we have better tech tools for managing them. Thanks for reading.

Latest in Category

Keep up with us Seven Days a week!

Sign up for our fun and informative

All content © 2024 Da Capo Publishing, Inc. 255 So. Champlain St. Ste. 5, Burlington, VT 05401

Advertising Policy  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us  |  About Us  |  Help
Website powered by Foundation