Making the Grades
According to retired statesman Donald Rumsfeld, there are four distinctions into which information can be categorized.
1. The Known Known: Things we know we know.
2. The Known Unknown: Things we know we don’t know.
3. The Unknown Unknown: Things we don’t know we don’t know.
4. The Unknown Known: Things that we think we know, that it turns out we do not.
When filmmaker Errol Morris set out make a documentary about Rumsfeld, he used the man’s own definitions to frame his interview with the former Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld held that prestigious position when the US underwent the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the subsequent wars with Afghanistan and Iraq.
In preparation for the shoot, Morris perused thousands of memos composed by Rumsfeld during his various governmental duties. Starting in the 1960s as a newly elected congressman, he began recording his thoughts/directives into a Dictaphone. Rumsfeld’s notes were later printed out on white paper (from thence they received the nickname “snowflakes”) for the addressee and his staff to read. He continued this habit throughout his career. While it is impossible to estimate exactly how many he wrote, he created at least 20,000 of them between 2001 to 2006, while serving as the Secretary of Defense.
From the opening credits of the film, there is a feeling of an implied question (accusation?) from the documentarian, that it is assumed we the audience know. Using ammunition collected from the avalanche of paperwork, Morris lobs inquiries at Rumsfeld, and then pits the politician’s answers against phrases taken from his past memos. Archival photographs, newsreels, newspaper headlines and video recordings of White House media briefings are also used to support Morris’ side in this unspoken argument. (These visuals present the movie’s greatest content concerns, as they portray violent events and disturbing moments in world events.)
If Rumsfeld knows what unknown information Morris is fishing for, then the polished diplomat never lets it show. Instead his response is cool and measured (quoting his own words). Over the course of the conversation, Rumsfeld twirls his phrases and plays with the semantics of the English language as he reflects on the al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centers and his own experiences at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the building. He recounts his decision-making process leading up to the conflict with Iraq, the measures taken to oust Saddam Hussein, and the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction. He weighs the lessons he learned from history (like the mistakes of Pearl Harbor) and lightly touches on the working relationships he had with various world leaders (such as Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz). Even when pelted with hard facts about his role in the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (news pictures of abuse, torture and obscured nudity are shown), Rumsfeld’s composure and confidence remains unruffled. Nor is there even ever a hint of doubt in his sincere belief that he made the best decisions possible while in office.
Despite Morris’ skillful snowball throwing, he is unable knock loose much of anything unknown about this man of mystery that Rumsfeld wishes to keep unknown. And there is an almost palpable sense of disappointment at this defeat as the documentary wraps up. Ironically, I think it is Morris who comes away from this investigative study with the “Unknown Known”. Whatever it was he thought he knew about Donald Rumsfeld before the cameras rolled, it turned out he did not. Or at the very least it must be conceded, Morris could not get any evidence to confirm his preconceived suspicions.
Release Date: USA: 14 November 2013 (Limited) - 4 April 2014 (Wider)
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Unknown Known.
What do you think was the goal of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris? What do you think his underlying question was? What do you think he hoped to accomplish by interviewing Donald Rumsfeld? Do you think he succeeded? Why do you think Donald Rumsfeld agreed to be interviewed?
On March 25, 2014, Errol Morris published the following article in the New York Times. What light do his comments shed on the making of the documentary The Unknown Known?
“When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?”- Errol Morris (March 25, 2014)
When asked about past decisions, Donald Rumsfeld answers he made the best choices possible with the information he had available. How do you feel about this assertion? Do you think he is sincere? Do you think he is over confident? Why are things always easier to see in retrospect? Should a person punish himself or herself if a choice made in the past is proven to be a bad idea in the future? What is an appropriate way to respond to such an event?
Rumsfeld seems to feel the verdict is still out on the rights and wrongs of many of his decisions, saying: “Time will tell.” Do you think enough time has gone by to pass judgment on some of his directives? Is it possible that the way we look at this period in history may change as more time passes? Because it is impossible to go back and try a different approach, is there anyway to assess if there were better ways to handle the situation? How can we learn from both the right and wrong choices of the past?