The Unknown Known

Errol Morris vs. Donald Rumsfeld

Thursday, April 17, 2014

People will walk out of The Unknown Known convinced that Donald Rumsfeld is an awful man—and just as convinced that others will love him. They will be dispirited, imagining that he dominated filmmaker Errol Morris, not realizing that they have just witnessed one of the great rope-a-dopes in documentary history—one all the more impressive, because Rumsfeld is no dope.

Yes, Morris could have confronted him. He could have pressed him on his insistence that the Iraq War would be a cakewalk, that it could be done with a small invading force, and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Only once in the film does Morris prove that Rumsfeld is directly misrepresenting assertions he made during his years as Secretary of Defense. Morris might have done that over and over.

But that’s not the movie Morris was interested in making. He was after something more fascinating, to show the personality—or one of the personalities—behind a foreign policy debacle. So he makes Rumsfeld feel safe. He doesn’t challenge him but lets him blossom, and Rumsfeld blossoms all over himself, talking and talking, and charming and charming. Has there ever been a man so thoroughly pleased with himself?

What emerges can only emerge over time. In short bursts, Rumsfeld is an engaging, witty personality. For the first half hour, no matter what your politics are, you will find yourself liking him. He’s good company—until he’s not. Gradually, the personality reveals deeper layers. Suddenly, a man who seems as though he enjoys people is revealed as someone who just likes an audience. You realize you’re in the presence of a narcissist of colossal proportions.

Morris works this to his advantage by getting Rumsfeld to perform. He asks him to read from some of the 20,000 memos he wrote as defense secretary—and of course, Rumsfeld does—until it’s just Rumsfeld’s voice all over the soundtrack. He’s inescapable. First you see him, then you’re surrounded by him, and ultimately you feel as though you’re stuck inside his mind. And the closer you get, the less impressive he becomes.

Yes, Rumsfeld is highly intelligent, but it’s an intelligence that seems to think in circles, that analyzes and questions, and yet always heads to some predetermined point. It’s like he’s locked in a maze of mirrors. Look at him as he talks about the greatest disappointment of his life. Was it Iraq? Oh, no. It was getting passed over for vice president by Ronald Reagan in 1980. After an hour with Rumsfeld, Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush seems like a stroke of luck bordering on divine providence.

The key to The Unknown Known—the title comes from a typically Rumsfeldian locution about weighing various facts—comes in the last minute of the documentary. Morris asks him what seems like an innocent little question, but the question contains the whole movie. I won’t tell you what the question is. I’ll just tell you its effect. To extend the boxing analogy, it’s as if Morris, after getting pummeled for 12 rounds, just taps Rumsfeld with his finger—and scores a knockout.

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