The Unknown Known Review: Portrait of a Politician

Donald Rumsfeld Donald Rumsfeld

The Unknown Known is the latest documentary from renowned director Errol Morris whose previous films include The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the 2003 Academy Award winner for best documentary feature The Fog Of War. The title of Morris’ most recent film originates from a 2002 press statement given by the central subject of The Unknown Known: Donald Rumsfeld. At that time the former U.S. Secretary of Defense said in part, “…there are known knowns; there are things that we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” That kind of political doublespeak is bound to have George Orwell laughing in his grave.

The Unknown Known is an engrossing and gripping film that explores the storied career of Donald Rumsfeld and his involvement in many of the major historical events which shaped the United States of America during the post World War II era. The documentary affords viewers the unique opportunity to revisit a number of pivotal points in recent U.S. history and see them through Rumsfeld’s eyes.

The Unknown Known begins with the controversial politician’s take on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. His personal opinion on the devastating and unexpected military strike was that it was the result of “a failure of imagination.” Morris then guides the conversation to other topics such as Watergate, the Vietnam War and 1975 fall of Saigon, the Cold War, 9/11, the search for Saddam Hussein, and U.S. offensive in Iraq.

Regardless of your personal opinion of Donald Rumsfeld and his policies The Unknown Known illustrates the undeniable fact that he’s played a major role in American politics. Rumsfeld’s political career dates back to 1962 when he was elected to the House of Representatives for the state of Illinois. Under the Nixon administration he served as Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity from 1969 to 1970. Rumsfeld was then appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 1973-1974. After managing to avoid fall out from the Watergate scandal Rumsfeld was even considered to be a potential candidate for Vice President. He continued to rise up through the political ranks and in 2001 became President Carter’s White House Chief of Staff. Rumsfeld’s career reached its peak in 2001 when President George Bush appointed him as Secretary of Defense. He held this powerful post until 2006.

Errol Morris has proven himself to be a talented filmmaker and in The Unknown Known he illustrates how much confidence he has in the weighty subject matter by choosing to depict Donald Rumsfeld directly addressing the camera and consequently the film’s viewers. Although throughout the movie Morris can be heard off screen interviewing Rumsfeld the filmmaker is never seen and allows the audience an intimate opportunity to get an unflinching look at the central subject of the film. In this way viewers are able to not only hear Rumsfeld’s answers but we can also see his body language along with his emotional (or more accurately unemotional) reactions to each question. The experienced statesman comes across not only as arrogant, self satisfied, and unrepentant, but he also displays no sign of moral ambiguity, regret, doubt, or sober second thought. Rumsfeld adopts a casual tone when he uses phrases such as “we killed some people” in order to dismiss or down play consequences of military offensives which took place under his command. It’s interesting (not to mention disturbing) to note that throughout the entire film regardless of no how dire or serious the questions he’s asked are or what responses he gives Rumsfeld continually breaks out into a twisted grandfather-like grin.

In the hands of a less capable filmmaker the historical material covered in The Unknown Known could’ve resulted in a dry and predictable documentary. With Errol Morris at the helm, however, the film is suspenseful, dramatic, and thought provoking. Along with original music by Danny Elfman and some imaginative graphics Morris crafts a compelling and important documentary geared not only to appeal to political junkies but also to anyone interested in American history or foreign policy. Add to the list of potential viewers each and every citizen who has witnessed the audacity and egoism of our politicians looked at the state of government with a sense of “shock and awe.”

The Unknown Known screens as RIDM’s Docville monthly screenings on April 24 at Cinema Excentris (3536 ST Laurent) at 8 p.m.

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About C.L. Illsley

I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia but have called Montreal home since 1999. I received degrees from Mount Saint Vincent University & Concordia University. I enjoy writing, watching movies, & most of all spending time with my 4 cats. Contact: Facebook | Twitter | More Posts