I became interested in The Unknown Known when Stephen Colbert interviewed its maker, master documentarian Errol Morris. The movie presents former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a self-styled master of subterfuge and someone who believes he is impervious to being made a fool. The surprising part is that for the most part, he is not made a fool. Of course he says some ridiculous things, explaining for instance about “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns”. He also contradicts himself a few times, but he is also shown to be an intelligent and articulate man, though misguided and pedantic.
The Unknown Known is, more than anything else, a rather straightforward biography of the former Secretary. As such, we do learn a lot about him — I certainly did not know that before serving with Bush II, he was in the Nixon administration and was Secretary of Defense during the Ford presidency. He was also considered a running mate for Ronald Reagan — and that close to possibly succeeding Reagan as President.
History — and today’s news — teach us what a complete disaster the Iraq war was, and Rumsfeld’s involvement in it demonstrates what terrible judgement he had. But that was par for the course in the W administration, and the blame for Iraq rests squarely on Bush himself.
As for the movie, if you have an interest in Rumsfeld, you will find this movie edifying and entertaining. It has good production values and features a good score by veteran composer Danny Elfman. And as a nice bonus, it’s dedicated to Roger Ebert. But the movie fails to provide that great revelatory moment or the type of groundbreaking conclusion that is the mark of better documentaries. And if you’re looking for a gleeful romp of ridiculousness at the expense of Rumsfeld, you won’t find it here — there’s more nuance than that. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit of a re-tread for those who followed the progress of the war and politics in general. Still though, worthwhile and funny at times. 6/10