Errol Morris turns the lens on Donald Rumsfeld in his newest documentary, The Unknown Known. Review by Peter Stäuber

Errol Morris“Any military commander who is honest with himself – or with those he is speaking to – will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He has killed people unnecessarily. His own troops or other troops. Through mistakes, through errors of judgement.”

It’s probably unnecessary to point this out, but it was not Donald Rumsfeld who said this. It was Robert McNamara, like Rumsfeld former Secretary of Defense, speaking in Errol Morris’ prize-winning documentary The Fog of War (2003). The fact that Rumsfeld would never make a statement of this sort goes to the heart of the problem with The Unknown Known. It is certainly a much less satisfying viewing experience than the earlier film – which does not mean that it’s a worse film.

The Unknown Known is essentially a long interview with Donald Rumsfeld, filmed using the ‘Interrotron’, a device that enables the interviewee to talk to a projection of the interviewer’s face and still look straight into the camera. The conversation focuses on his time as Defense Secretary under George W. Bush (2001-2006) and the controversies around the Iraq war, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, with excursions into Rumsfeld’s formative years as a politician and his first stint as Defense Secretary under President Gerald Ford, from 1975 until 1977.

The scaffolding of the interview is provided by excerpts from his ‘snowflakes’: thousands of memos and emails that Rumsfeld wrote during his time in office. These are visualised in two different ways: On the one hand through close-ups of the printed text and of dictionary definitions of crucial words (‘evidence’, ‘torture’), and on the other hand through the recurring motif of a snow globe with little flecks of snow whirling around the Washington Monument. These two contrasting images mirror the essence of Rumsfeld’s responses: Even though he uses concrete words with definite meanings, he keeps turning them into a confusing semantic whirl, twisting language beyond Orwellian doublespeak to make his case.

In this way, he talks his way through the most ridiculous nonsense, suggesting that you somehow have to prepare for war if you want peace, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, that there is such a thing as known knowns and unknown knowns or known unknowns or whatever, it doesn’t really matter, that he cannot be held responsible for torture in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, and so on and so forth.

The viewer sees right through his obfuscation, but, as many reviewers have pointed out, Morris refuses to pin him down. He shows excerpts from press conferences that directly contradict what Rumsfeld says, but that’s all – there is no confrontation, no aggressive cross-examination, no Paxman-style interrogation.

It’s not that Morris tries and somehow fails to lay bare the contradictions, but deliberately chooses not to. As Morris said in the Q&A session at the Ritzy Cinema: “I don’t use thumb screws, I don’t waterboard anybody, I just let them talk.” This is also true for The Fog of War: McNamara says what he wants to say, but the difference is that at least he has some interesting insights. Rumsfeld has no insights, let alone any intention to repent or at least to convey a sense of regret about the decisions he took. He is completely convinced that he was right. Often, the camera lingers on his face for a long time after he has spoken, as if waiting for him to realise what he has just said, to qualify his statement, to say something – anything – that goes beyond hawkish dogma. But he never does.

According to Morris, this is why The Unknown Known is a better film than The Fog of War: It demonstrates the way in which dogma replaces evidence in the decisions of our military commanders. It’s an awful story, so there is no reason that we should somehow feel better about it because the man who was responsible for the death of thousands of people feels sorry for it. He has a point: McNamara comes across as a wise, enlightened statesman who has come to realise that his decisions during the Vietnam war caused a lot of suffering. The film leaves the viewer with a very favourable impression of the former Defense Secretary, which overshadows the fact that he never questioned the reasons why the US went to war in Vietnam, always thought that the war was fought for a just cause and based on noble values.  A sense that McNamara lacked moral intelligence (as Howard Zinn put it) or was, in the words of Noam Chomsky, a ‘dull, narrow technocrat who questioned nothing’, is completely absent from The Fog of War.

With Rumsfeld, there is no such ambiguity: He was a war criminal in office, and he still is. That is a frustrating assessment, but also a much more honest one. The problem is, of course, that it’s not a particularly surprising conclusion, and the film is therefore a lot less captivating. It’s very well told, but in the end, there is not much that the film gives the viewer that s/he didn’t know before. Which begs the question: Why make the film in the first place? If you interview a war criminal, do you do his victims any favour if you show him grinning his way through the interview and indulging in daft platitudes?

Peter Stäuber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.