Cinema Review – The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld resigned from the Bush Administration – where he had worked as Secretary of Defence – in 2006. Having been crucial in the planning of the response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and the War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld has been one of the many people in the Bush Administration who fingers were pointed at. In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld sits down with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris to look back on his career.

Director Errol Morris is arguably best known for his 2003 film The Fog Of War, and his distinctive style of documentary making is both gripping and involving. It helps, in the case of The Unknown Known, that his subject is both fascinating and – to some – repugnant – as well as being charismatic and an immensely quotable speaker.

Perhaps Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous quote has passed into common parlance and popular culture; ‘there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know’. The quote led to Rumsfeld being the subject of derision, but Morris cleverly uses the quote to frame the entire film, questioning Rumsfeld to find out whether there was something he knew but refused to admit to himself.

Morris’s film spans Rumsfeld’s entire career, and focuses on the fact that the former Secretary of Defence was well known for sending memos throughout his career; so much so that they became known as ‘snowflakes’ and when he left office, Rumsfeld sent one last one to his staff thanking them and telling them that the blizzard was over. Rumsfeld’s career is interesting, and as we learn more about the man that Rumsfeld is, the clearer it becomes that he worked incredibly hard to get where h got.

The trouble with the film, as gripping and engaging as it is, is that it seems that Morris foes rather easy on Rumsfeld and, while he asks the hard questions, he seems content to allow his subject to stick to the lines that he drew while in office. Of course it’s unclear whether this is the truth, a lie, or what Rumsfeld believes is the truth. Whatever the caase, Rumsfeld never appears to be out of his comfort zone and, while the story he tells sometimes cast him in an unfavourable light, there is little here that we didn’t already know. Morris does eventually challenge Rumsfeld, but it is through graphics and newspaper clippings put on screen and it is unclear whether this information was ever put to Rumsfeld himself.

The Unknown Known is a fascinating look behind the scenes at a man whose policies shaped world events for many years and Morris’s documentary is incredibly compelling and well put together. The film suffers, however, by Morris seemingly never truly challenging his subject.

Rating: 3.5/5


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