In 2003 documentary filmmaker Errol Morris made a film called the Fog of War, in which Morris interviewed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara over his role in the Vietnam War and the US campaign in South East Asia during the Cold War. Ten years later Morris brings us The Unknown Known, a film about another defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and another controversial war. The more things change the more they stay the same.
The Unknown Known riffs on one of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous aphorisms, that there are “known knowns,” the things we know we know, “known unknowns,” the things we know we don’t know, and “unknown unknowns” the things we have no idea may lurk out there and thus, Rumsfeld’s contention that they require extra vigilance and imagination in order to defend against. The title of the film continues with Rumsfeld’s final category, the “unknown known,” and considers what the meaning of that phrase might be.
Drawing on an extensive interview with Rumsfeld — utilizing Morris’ famous “Interrotron” camera — as well as access to the thousands of memos — or “snowflakes” as Rumsfeld called the white papers that filtered down to his underlings — the film asserts, as Rumsfeld himself originally did that the “unknown known,” are those things that we think that we know, but that it turns out we didn’t.
While Morris never makes it explicit and avoids the kind of “gotcha” cinema that someone like Michael Moore engages in, the viewer is guided to think about the assertion by Rumsfeld and the Bush administration that the presence of WMDs justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Of course, they WMDs were never found. Did WMDs constitute exactly the kind of “unknown known” that Rumsfeld was referring to?
The Unknown Known, however, is not particularly interested in political point scoring as it is in probing the personalities that shape history. Men and women in Rumsfeld’s position must take action based on what information they have. Many have mocked Rumsfeld’s aphorism, but it actually raises a good point about epistemology and the status of the knowledge that we have about the world around us. What is particularly puzzling is that this same man who coined the phrase claims to have been certain about WMDs. The seeming lack of self-awareness is striking. In many other scenes Rumsfeld comes across as a charming and canny self-promoter. Is he putting us on?
In the post-screening Q&A, Morris noted that many have called the film a sequel to the The Fog of War — that “fog” might be the cause of many unknown knowns — but Morris never gets Rumsfeld to admit to any kind of wrong doing the way he does McNamara. Instead, Morris suggested that this might be more of a sequel to his last doc, Tabloid, in chronicling the way that if one repeats a lie to oneself enough, one can start to believe it. Could that be the unknown known, those self-deceptions that creates a notion of illusory self-knowledge?
Morris is a great documentarian because he has such a fine sense in choosing material and his interview techniques are effective. Unfortunately, the weakest parts of this film are the uninspiring visuals and cloying score from Danny Elfman, which both detract from the film significantly.
Rumsfeld is a fascinating subject for a film. His influence on American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th and early 21st century is significant, and thus his own rationale for his actions and self-perception do matter. The Unknown Known is worth watching for this reason alone, and for the way that Errol Morris shows us that there’s more to the story than we might think, pointing beyond simple presentation of information or a political message and gesturing to deeper truths about who we are as human beings.
7 out of 10
The Unknown Known (2013, USA)
Written and directed by Errol Morris; featuring Donald Rumsfeld.