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Review: The Unknown Known – Weapon of mass deception

Posted by on April 11, 2014 – 7:30 am

The Unknown KnownThe language of politics can be fascinating, and in that world of carefully chosen words and deceptive speech, former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was/is one of the best there is at what he does. Now if you think that ‘fascinating’ and ‘politics’ are two words that should never appear together in the same sentence, then you are probably going to bored to tears with the new documentary film, The Unknown Known.

Master documentarian, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), takes Rumsfeld head-on (off-screen anyway) and attempts to provoke him into owning up to mistakes made during the George W. Bush Administration; but the master-politician more than holds his own against the filmmaker, and, as he would often do during his Iraqi War press conferences, makes his questioner seem quite foolish.

That doesn’t mean that Rumsfeld is right (or that I agree with anything he says), it just means that he is a finely honed weapon of mass deception, and on that level you have to respect the man, not only for his audacious swagger, but for his skillful ability to manipulate political jargon (although the Generals under his command eventually spurred his resignation for his lack of ability when it came to military planning and strategy.)

In the film, Morris tries to give Rumsfeld enough rope to hang himself, but the politician is too smooth (or greasy if you prefer) to be snagged by the noose, and the camera is left sitting stagnant on the subject in case – if we were to wait long enough – he would surrender and reveal some deeply guarded government secret.

The Unknown KnownRumsfeld is probably best known for his quote, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns – there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns – that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” Obviously this is where Morris gets the title for his film, and if you watch it you’ll see that even Rumsfeld gets this mixed up.

As for the film itself, it is well done in the usual Errol Morris manner, although there is probably too much screen time for Rumsfeld, talking directly to the audience or to the off-screen director. The narrative delves into the former two-time Secretary of Defense’s lifelong political career, which included staff positions with Presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush, and it was his close ties with former Vice-President Dick Cheney that brought him into the White House for a third time. According to the film, it was only a subtle shuffle of political cards that prevented Rumsfeld from potentially becoming Vice-President in more than one Republican administration.

The Unknown KnownThe Unknown Known could have benefited greatly by having interviews with other political players, vice having the man read straight from the multitudes of memorandums he had written over the years. While that is all historically significant and interesting, it’s also downright boring to anyone but the most ardent political wonks among us.

If you are someone who enjoys the Sunday morning political talk shows, then you are likely to get more out of this movie than those who would rather spend that time sleeping (by the way – the politicians are counting on you sleepers); but even then, one-hundred minutes of Rumsfeld-speak in one setting is a little too much for anyone. Grade: 5/10

“The Unknown Known” opens exclusively at Harkins Shea on Friday, April 11, 2014.

Photos © 2014 The Weinstein Company