“I’m cool and measured,” says Donald Rumsfeld with a twinge of pique when Errol Morris asks if he’s obsessive. The former defense secretary has just mentioned the 20,000 memos he dictated in a six-year period. He’s written so many, he says with a no-lips grin that’s a visible effort, that colleagues call them “snowflakes.”
The Unknown Known, named for one of Rumsfeld’s cyclical, foggy platitudes, charts Rumsfeld’s long history of executive-branch influence, and appears at first to be a book-end to Morris’s Oscar-winning The Fog of War, in which Robert S. McNamara’s memories of the Vietnam War acted first as historical study and eventually as struggle for understanding. And Morris’s style has minimal flash; occasionally, the close-up documents feel like filler designed to break up Rumsfeld’s steady, empty gaze.
But that’s the fascinating thing about The Unknown Known: It’s designed to crack open the subject and becomes increasingly surreal the longer he doesn’t. Rumsfeld largely refuses to examine the past even for insight, much less reconsideration, parroting his own half-answers and denying discrepancies even as they’re demonstrated. He calls 9/11—like Pearl Harbor—”a failure of imagination.” He casually discusses how he hoped America would redraw the Middle East in a way that should give pause to even the least introspective patriot.
Morris has been criticized for not pinning Rumsfeld harder, but though the movie quietly decries him, there’s no chance of confession. He’s a reptile in a pricey suit, rictus grin unfurling to fill any pause longer than five seconds. The Unknown Known presents a man who simply isn’t there. What that says about a country that’s allowed him to flourish, Morris doesn’t say. Maybe that grin says it all.