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With: Donald Rumsfeld
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Errol Morris
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief nudity
Running Time: 103
Date: 04/04/2014

The Unknown Known (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Asked and Unanswered

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I saw Errol Morris's The Unknown Known back in December, and I have been pondering it for several months now. On a surface reading, it's a documentary about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, under whose watch the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Morris has made nine other feature documentaries and several other short films and television programs. He has interviewed powerful people before -- notably Robert S. McNamara in his brilliant The Fog of War (2003) -- and usually manages to disarm his subjects. He not only gets important information, but he also gets seemingly non-important information that actually reveals quite a bit more.

If anyone could get something out of Rumsfeld, surely Morris could. But he doesn't. What anyone wants to know going into this movie, is: did Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration make a mistake by invading Iraq? Was there an ulterior motive? What was behind the entire mess? These questions are not answered. Instead, Rumsfeld calls upon all his powers to appear on camera for 103 minutes straight, appear charming, speak clearly and intelligently, and avoid saying much of anything at all.

We're left with many offscreen questions. Did Morris believe he made a mistake with this film, and merely edited together what he could to avoid wasting money and time? But more importantly: why did Rumsfeld agree to do this?

So the film is a failure based on any kind of literal reading. But I believe it's still a fascinating and important document for many, less concrete reasons. It's true that Rumsfeld never cracks under Morris's questioning -- over 30 hours in total, according to reports -- but that's not to say that Morris should not have tried. Indeed, more Americans need to be asking more questions about a lot of things.

Then there's Rumsfeld's language, which is the result of an evolution of years of politics, carefully crafted to give the illusion of power and control -- and, specifically to keep power and control -- and to reveal nothing even slightly untoward. Now we have a useful document of this kind of language, which can be studied and perhaps someday used to better understand and dismantle it.

That's where the title The Unknown Known, taken from Rumsfeld's cryptic memo, comes in. There are things that we don't know that we know. That's exactly how this movie should be watched.

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