The Unknown Known
How much is known and unknown about the former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ?
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)