AFI Fest 2013: ‘The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld’ - Film Review

Reporting from AFI Fest 2013, presented by Audi


It happens every year around the anniversary of September 11.  A bunch of officials who worked in the George W. Bush administration are rounded up and trotted out on national television to recount that dreadful day and to talk about the still (Still!) ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s fascinating to behold, because 12 years of history have passed under the bridge.  We have a great deal of hindsight now.  History has largely been contextualized.  Unless, that is, you worked in the George W. Bush administration.  As is often the case in partisan politics, history seems to morph into an entirely other thing for people who were likely too close to actual events.  The delusions on display are often breathtaking.  No matter the body count (Over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed.) or the staggering amount of money thrown away ($1 trillion and counting), they still (Still!) believe they did the right thing.  At least Bush himself has the good taste to stay out of the public eye.

The latest film from the great documentary filmmaker Errol Morris attacks this head on.  The Unknown Known is a probing documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, who was Bush’s Defense Secretary during both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, serving up to about halfway into Bush’s second term.  If you’re a film fan and not familiar with Morris’ work (Like the rest of us, I just don’t see enough documentaries.), he has, in many ways, reinvented the form.  Documentaries used to be visually very dull, consisting almost exclusively of talking-head interviews, stock footage, and a little voiceover narration.  Morris brought great creativity to a very staid form, and his new film is no exception.  Yes, the film largely consists of one long talking-head interview with Rumsfeld himself, but it’s often interspersed with clever animations and visual trickery.  For instance, in one sequence Rumsfeld is talking about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal as a dark hole.  Morris animates the words from Rumsfeld’s extensive memos on the subject slowly falling down into a dark hole. 

So, what about the film’s subject?  First of all, I think he’s got to be given some credit for participating in the film. It’s impressive coming from conservatives who are convinced the media is out to get them.  Rumsfled comes off as a man oddly obsessed with words and definitions.  According to his own account, he wrote over 20,000 memos while working at the Pentagon, many of them were literally about the meanings of words.  It’s hard to imagine why the Secretary of Defense, while overseeing two wars, would sit behind his desk and worry about what words mean.   Shouldn’t he have been more worried about, you know, the wars?  The most telling part for me was Rumsfeld’s complete lack of remorse about Iraq’s nonexistent stockpile of WMDs.  He shrugs it off as just faulty intelligence, even though everybody in the administration was convinced those weapons existed.  Hindsight has not softened their hubris.

I’m a huge fan of The Daily Show, and one of my favorite things in life is watching Jon Stewart eviscerate people by replaying footage of them contradicting their recent assertions.  There was a great piece a couple of weeks ago in which Stewart bludgeoned critics of the government’s fine of JP Morgan concerning the ’08 market implosion.  Jim Cramer (a favorite Stewart target) complained that the federal government practically put a gun to JP Morgan’s head and forced them to buy Bear Stearns, prompting Stewart to run an old interview with Cramer in which he said the acquisition of Bear Stearns was such a sweetheart deal it should have been illegal for JP Morgan to make it.  Hilarity ensues, along with a little twinge of sadness for what it must be like to be Jim Cramer.

The Unknown Known contains a few of its own Daily Show moments.  When Morris asks Rumsfeld why the American public thought Saddam Hussein was involved with planning, Rumsfeld denies anybody in the Bush administration making that claim.  This leads in to a clip from a Rumsfeld press conference in which he says Saddam Hussein is in collusion with Al Qaeda.  I have to admit I was really impressed with Morris’ restraint, as the whole film could easily have consisted of those moments.  The film’s score is provided by Danny Elfman, and I always seem to enjoy his work away from Tim Burton, as those scores often sound more or less interchangeable.

Bush-era detractors may be disappointed that the film is very evenhanded and restrained about a man they find kind of detestable.  People looking for a bloodletting may left wanting, but that’s what good documentaries (and good journalism for that matter) do.  I often agree with Michael Moore in terms of policy ideas, yet I often find his films incredibly annoying, because he has stacked the deck so far in his own favor.   And, before anybody gets on the liberal high horse, don’t forget that five years into the Obama administration, we are still (Still!) in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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