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Rumsfeld: Getting to know the ‘Unknown Known’

Errol Morris’ new documentary, “The Unknown Known,” opens at the Magic Lantern tonight. (So does Vol. 1 of Lars Von Trier’s graphic exploration of sexual obsession, “Nymphomaniac,” but that’s something else completely.)

Anyway, if you plan on catching Morris’ movie, you might want to check out the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. An edited version follows:

I hated high-school debate. Not only did I suffer from performance anxiety, which made it hard even to stand in front of a class much less to argue anything, I seldom did the required preparation.

That’s why, in senior civics class, when I was assigned to debate Warren King on some subject I can’t begin to remember, I reacted to his 10-minute presentation with a one-word query. “Why?” I said. It was my entire response, delivered without even leaving my chair. Our teacher, Miss Belda, was NOT amused.

I doubt Donald Rumsfeld has ever experienced a moment like that. As the subject of Errol Morris’ new documentary, “The Unknown Known,” Rumsfeld confirms what many of us already know about the two-time former Secretary of Defense: The man is a master not only of semantics but of dissimulation.

The title of Morris’ film is a play on one of Rumsfeld’s most famous quotes, which he made at a February 2002 news briefing. “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me,” Rumsfeld proclaimed, “because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”

Whip smart, Rumsfeld is the kind of human who, if he does entertain doubt, he isn’t about to show it. Not in public. And perhaps not ever. Morris wanted him to do exactly that by answering questions, particularly about the war in Iraq. Morris had been relatively successful doing much the same thing in his 2004 film “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” In that documentary, filmed in much the same way as “The Unknown Known” – mostly in one-on-one interview style – Morris had succeeded in getting McNamara, Defense Secretary under Lyndon Johnson, to express at least a sense of regret. Not so with Rumsfeld.

From the beginning of his word joust with Morris, it’s clear that Rumsfeld is prepared. Genial, but guarded. Just as he showed in those many new briefings he held during his tenures during the Ford and second Bush administrations, he is calm, controlled and unshakeable. McNamara, one of the Best and the Brightest guys who helped shape the policies that resulted in the ill-fated Vietnam War, ended up telling Morris, “I think the human race needs to think more about killing. How much evil must we do in order to do good?” But the most Rumsfeld is willing to concede to Morris is that, regarding Vietnam, “Some things work out. Some things don’t. That didn’t.” As for justifying the war in Iraq, Rumsfeld is even more succinct. “Time will tell,” he says.

“I’m not interested in cracking the nut,” Morris told Slate Magazine. “I’m interested in exploring the nut, if that makes sense.” Yes, it does, because Morris is a filmmaker, not a journalist. And as such, in addition to filling his film with the cinematic traits that have become his trademark – charts and graphs, shifting subtitles, copies of the thousands of Rumsfeld-written memos that he calls “snowflakes” – Morris tries not to force the truth from his subjects so much as create an interesting study of them.

And that, ultimately, is what he has done – however unsatisfying that may be to some of his audience. In the end, Morris’ success is, as he told Slate, to create a film that shows a man fully bent on finding a “retreat into language, used not just to hide the truth from others, but from yourself – a strange retreat into the castle of language.”