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The Known Unknown
by Becky Tan

Errol Morris, USA 2013

What a perfect topic for a documentary: former U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. And I don’t mean that sarcastically. He is the perfect comedian, always performing with a straight face or a small smile. The only problem is that he isn’t acting; he believes all of the nonsense that he speaks.

Director Errol Morris filmed Rumsfeld for eleven days over a course of one year.  Rumsfeld was in politics from the 1960s to the 2000s, with a break of 23 years for private enterprise. Morris concentrates on the political years. In flashbacks we see Rumsfeld as a young, good-looking congressman elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Illinois in 1962 at age 30. He goes on to work under President Richard Nixon and then to serve on the cabinet of Gerald Ford and then George W. Bush. He was by then Secretary of Defence; it was the Iraq war. Circumstances forced him to resign in 2006.

Norris films him close up, looking directly into the camera. Rumsfeld talks about the war in Vietnam and the helicopters which rescued citizens from the roof of the U.S. embassy. He talks about Iraq, peace-keeping, water boarding by the CIA and other forms of torture. He says, referring to the Iraqis, “We know they have weapons of mass destruction.” Rumsfeld is famous for writing memos to himself which he kept, a tsunami of memos, nicknamed “snow flakes,” at least 20,000 during the Bush administration. They are all on file for interested members of the public to read. He repeats his famous quote, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things 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.” This, of course, was the basis for the film title.

Errol Morris is a competent director quite well known for many films such as The Fog of War about Robert S. McNamara or Standard Operating Procedures which won the Jury Grand Prix at the 2008 Berlinale. In the Unknown Known, it is suggested that Rumsfeld just simply doesn’t get it; he isn’t there. Morris said that his own wife compares Rumsfeld to the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. “A cat with a grin is often seen, but a grin without a cat, never.” Morris believes that Rumsfeld agreed to the filming because he likes to talk. He claimed that he “never read the memos about torture in Abu Ghraib prison in 2003,” although he was Secretary of Defence at the time.  How is that possible? He seems genuinely interested to read copies which Morris shows him. Some believe that Rumsfeld is telling the truth: he had never read these memos. Morris calls him a Jabberwocky, which, according to Wikipedia is “one of the greatest nonsense poems written in English.”

This is an excellent film. The viewers, who will most appreciate the effort made to keep the facts for posterity, are those who have experienced Rumsfeld in the news, on TV, over the last fifty years. There are no surprises, but it is shocking to realize that we have been at the mercy of this politician for so many years.