‘I think you’re chasing the wrong rabbit,” Donald Rumsfeld says late in The Unknown Known, except that the former U.S. secretary of defence is a different animal altogether. He’s a fox who’s used to being hounded by journalists, and as such he’s a very elusive subject for a documentary – even one by a filmmaker who’s renowned for getting his subjects to talk.
The matchup between Errol Morris, the grand inquisitor of modern documentary cinema, and Rumsfeld, the master deflector, is exciting stuff, and The Unknown Known has the feel of non-fiction cinema as heavyweight title fight. Stowed safely off-screen at the other end of his trademark Interrotron camera rig – a two-way lens that forces the person being filmed to make eye contact with his interlocutor – Morris throws jabs at his octogenarian opponent, peppering him on topics ranging from his own political ascendancy in the Watergate era to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and its fallout. But Rumsfeld, veteran pugilist that he is, parries them without really breaking a sweat.
Some critics have already pointed out the connections between The Unknown Known and Morris’s Oscar-winning The Fog of War (2003), which engaged a previous secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, in a similar sort of punch-up. But where McNamara at least betrayed a sense of doubt about his role in getting America into a war in Vietnam, Rumsfeld – whose career began as that war was ending – is the very picture of certainty. Unfailingly articulate even when going over murky material about geopolitical gamesmanship and the chain of command, he’s brilliant at papering over logic gaps with excess verbiage – a talent borne out by archival clips of his press conferences. Quizzed about the lack of hard data on nuclear weapons in Iraq, Rumsfeld famously responded by saying “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – doublespeak worthy of Orwell.
As usual, Morris alternates between extended (sometimes awkwardly long) shots of his subject and abstract imagery meant to complement (or undermine) what we’re hearing on the soundtrack. This time, the director settles on snowflakes as his chosen metaphor, perhaps because, like snowflakes, no two of Rumsfeld’s iron-clad assertions are exactly alike – or maybe because they dissolve on contact. But a more telling symbol may be the old-fashioned tape recorder Morris cuts to as it absorbs all of Rumsfeld’s testimony. It’s a call-back to the climax of Morris’s 1998 film The Thin Blue Line, with its connotations of confession: It indicates that Rumsfeld is on the record, and that everything we need to indict him is there, if we just listen hard enough.
In the end, The Unknown Known is inconclusive – albeit provocatively so. Morris doesn’t break Rumsfeld down or even really get his goat, and in that sense the film is underwhelming. But it also helps us to understand something about the impenetrable psychology of a man with total recall for names and dates yet whose hindsight is something less than 20/20, especially when it comes to the bigger picture. What’s obscuring his vision is not the fog of war, but the same pair of rose-coloured glasses he’s been wearing for decades. At this point, taking them off would probably be like staring directly into the sun.