Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense for the half-decade that included September 11 and a couple of wars you might have heard of. But before that he was a Nixonian power player and NATO globetrotter.
So it makes sense that Errol Morris would follow up his enormously powerful The Fog of War—which profiled another Cold War whiz kid, Robert McNamara—with a film about Rumsfeld. Unknown and Fog are similar in their components: A lengthy interview with a man at the axis of history, archival footage, slick infographics, and a lush soundtrack (this time by Danny Elfman, of all people).
There is, however, an inherent difference between the two films: McNamara was interviewed at the end of his life and almost 35 years after his political career ended. His frankness about the ethical horrors of the military-industrial complex is not mirrored by Rumsfeld, who's only been out of the spotlight for one presidential administration and ostensibly still has speaking gigs to consider. It often feels like Unknown Known was made too soon for a true accounting of events.
If you're expecting mustache twirling or teeth gnashing, don't: Rumsfeld comes across as a human being who did what he thought needed to be done. He's pragmatic, well-spoken, and occasionally funny. You may not agree with the decisions he implemented, but at least they're laid out in logical chains: If Saddam Hussein had remained in power, Rumsfeld argues, he would've shot down an American airplane. If we treated detainees like POWs, we couldn't interrogate them. It's the familiar rhetoric, though in a more measured, thoughtful format. And Rumsfeld damningly observes that many of the controversies discussed—like Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act—are still with us today, despite a partisan changing of the guard. In that respect, maybe this film wasn't made too early. Maybe it was made too late.
The Unknown Known
dir. Errol Morris
Tin Pan Theater