A decade after winning an Oscar for conducting a one-on-one interview with Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War, Errol Morris tries to do the same for, former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. The title is a reference to a quote Rumsfeld makes, describing something that someone thinks they know, in which it turns out that they don’t. Much of the film focuses on Rumsfeld’s term as Secretary of Defence, under President George W. Bush, and his involvement in the war in Iraq. The film also goes back to the beginnings of Rumsfeld’s political career, in which he was part of the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
While The Unknown Known is undoubtedly a companion piece for 2003’s The Fog of War, it is also that film’s polar opposite. In the previous film, Robert McNamara was quite candid about his time as Secretary of Defense for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and events, such as the Vietnam War and Cuban Missile Crisis. On the other hand, Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t concede an inch for Errol Morris, no matter how much the director presses. In fact, probably the biggest moment in the film, involves Morris catching Rumsfeld contracting himself, in reference to the definition of an “Unknown Known,” which makes up the film’s title. Also, as seen on the film’s poster, there are many moments during the interview, where Rumsfeld cracks a very wide grin. Probably more than anything else in the film, this grin seems to suggest that Rumsfeld knows much more than he is letting on.
While Rumsfeld remains shielded for much of the interview, The Unknown Known is still quite a compelling watch. Rumsfeld had a long political career, which dated back to his time as a congressman in the late 1950s. He had his first term as Secretary of Defence for Gerald Ford in the 1970s, before returning to the role under George W. Bush in 2001. It is even mentioned at one point in the film that Rumsfeld might have even become president, if he was chosen as Ronald Reagan’s running mate in the 1980s, instead of George H.W. Bush.
At one point in The Unknown Known, Errol Morris asks straight out why Rumsfeld agreed to be interviewed. A clear answer is never given, however it doesn’t make the results less interesting to watch, especially whenever Rumsfeld makes that curious grin.8 | LIKED IT