Listening to Donald Rumsfeld discuss his time as US Secretary of Defense is simultaneously hilarious and infuriating. He is smitten with his own capabilities as a conversationalist, and watching him maneuver around difficult questions of politics and policy makes for a strangely enjoyable experience. He’s constantly laughing at his own observations or breaking into a wide, sincere smile when he says something he finds clever. He’s kind of charming! He is also kind of responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and likely countless atrocities committed in the name of American exceptionalism. Director Errol Morris explores this unusual tension with an impressive, nuanced approach, and “The Unknown Known” is a powerful document of modern American history.
I doubt that Morris expected the type of interview he ended up getting from Rumsfeld. Maybe he had anticipated that the former Secretary had spent the past 8 years in some sort of reflection on his tenure, and thought he might be interested in discussing his career with newfound perspective. This is almost exactly the opposite of what Rumsfeld offers. The responses he gives to Morris’ questions concerning issues like the Iraq War and the military’s use of torture in interrogations may as well have been recorded on his final day in office in 2006. It’s almost breathtaking; his conviction remains unshaken, despite a decade of revelations about the nature of his (and his peers’) duplicity in service of militarism.
What makes “The Unknown Known” so compelling is that Morris recognizes these tendencies in Rumsfeld and crafts his film around them, rather than attempting (and failing) to get some kind of confession or contrition from him. Rumsfeld is fascinated with semantics, philosophies of truth, and the manner in which language can coerce understanding. This makes him a difficult target for an interviewer. Morris is never able to pin him down on any particular issue and Rumsfeld revels in his own ability to reframe the questions posed to him. In response, Morris gives him free rein. Meanwhile, he intercuts newsreel footage of the devastation resulting from the United States’ interventionism in the Middle East and places contradictory statements from Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush administration alongside each other.
Morris does not need to explain the disparity here. He understands that as much as we are desperate to hear some sort of explanation from Rumsfeld, some sort of reasoning behind his brutal logic, those explanations would not be sufficient. Rumsfeld’s insistence, for example, that the devastation of Iraqi civilian lives was better referred to as a “liberation” is as harrowing today as it was then, and there is no admittance of guilt that could amend what occurred.
The film also acts as a reluctant acknowledgment that Rumsfeld was, in many ways, correct. He and his colleagues manipulated language to sell the public on a war that was eminently avoidable. Their redefined terms influenced public discourse for a generation afterward. As untrue as it was in fact, his strategy basically worked, and Morris’ film highlights the beginnings of a new American belligerency dictionary that is still in use today.
It’s crucial to mark the space between Rumsfeld’s spoken words and the horrors committed. Morris’ exploration of that space makes “The Unknown Known” a chilling, riveting depiction of modern American politics and the chameleonic nature of American imperialism in the 21st century. Rumsfeld’s infamous smirk seems an accurate symbol of what this country’s legacy will ultimately be.