Toward the end of The Unknown Known, Donald Rumsfeld says he’d loved to have known what was going through the mind of Saddam Hussein’s right hand man, Tariq Aziz, during the final years of the dictator’s regime. “[Aziz] is a perfectly rational, logical individual,” the Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush says. “You wonder: What goes on in a mind like that?”
That’s likely the same question director Errol Morris asked himself before he spent 33 hours interviewing Rumsfeld, who was a key architect in the country’s “War on Terror.” What he learned, in part, was that the now 81-year-old’s mind is a whirling sea of precise yet esoteric language comparable in size — say — to Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot.
Understand: Rumsfeld is a man who worked by writing things down. That’s how he thought, how he communicated with his staff. He estimates that throughout his lifetime he wrote one million little memos (which he calls snowflakes) on a huge range of topics, such as: war, imagination, intelligence, and definitions of words like “terrorism” and “incursion.” Morris somehow got access to theses snowflakes, and uses them in the film as historical touchpoints for Rumsfeld to ruminate upon, and sometimes trip over.
But Rumsfeld is nowhere near as open or emotional a subject as Robert S. McNamara was in The Fog of War, which Morris made a decade ago and for which he won an Academy Award. When interviewing McNamara, who was the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam era, Morris captured the burden of history weighing down on a historical figure. That doesn’t happen to Rumsfeld. To him, Vietnam just “didn’t work out,” and only “time will tell” when it comes to the War on Terror. Confident in his position in history, he tells Morris how he sees it. Often grinning.
Despite his creepy smile, Rumsfeld isn’t portrayed as nefarious; instead, he comes across more like an elder statesman. Yet, one feels as if Morris missed his chance to really press Rumsfeld, to pull from him some profound confession or insight. Then again, Rumsfeld appears way too sharp (and unreflective) to get caught in a question. So we’re left with his language — the “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns” the film’s title references.
To be left with only word puzzles is frustrating. On top of that, the film’s score borders on annoyingly melodramatic, unlike the one Philip Glass composed for The Fog of War. In comparison to that film, The Unknown Known isn’t nearly as moving of an interview, but it still remains an important document. After all, what Morris has composed in both films are portraits of power. Taken together, they are profound bookends to a period in American history where — in the words of one snowflake — we learned that it’s much easier to get ourselves into something than to get out of it.
The film is dedicated to Roger Ebert.
The Unknown Known is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.