The crucial Rummyism in the life, lexicon and flamboyantly knotty verbiage of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld isn't the infamous "known knowns/unknown knowns/known unknowns" briar patch.
Rather, it's found in one of Rumsfeld's thousands of "snowflakes," internal memos to various colleagues, subordinates and superiors and, often, wee dictations to himself for future use. It goes like this: "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Rumsfeld, he of the sly grin and the unblinking, stare-down gaze, noted this in a snowflake reminding himself to take up the matter of the missing weapons of mass destruction with then-President George W. Bush, amid the disastrous post-invasion phase of Iraq.
For 33 hours, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris spoke with Rumsfeld, and the result is "The Unknown Known," Morris' 10th documentary feature. This is no "Fog of War," in which Morris extracted all sorts of unexpected and finally moving acknowledgments of Vietnam-era mistakes and postwar guilt from onetime Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Rumsfeld is not a second-guesser of his own strategies. He does, however, offer a straightforward nonanswer answer to Morris' query regarding whether the U.S. should've stayed out of Iraq entirely following the unrelated events of 9/11. "Well," Rumsfeld says, "I guess time will tell."
Nothing seems so strange as recent history, and one of the strengths of "The Unknown Known" is its subtly astonished review of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, built upon what Morris (and a few others) see as bizarrely scant evidence and justification. Throughout the film, Morris has Rumsfeld read aloud from dozens of his own declassified memos, some focused on linguistic and rhetorical matters, such as finding a working definition for the words "terrorism," "several" and "scapegoat." Other memos dating from the early 1980s argue for the U.S. military to "lighten our hand in the Middle East" and to "never use" that military as "a peacekeeping force."
There is no such thing as the fog of war in Rumsfeld's worldview. His approach to geopolitics appears to be one part icy dispassion, two parts devil-may-care.
The lesson of Vietnam, he says on camera in "The Unknown Known," is nine words long: "Some things work out. Some things don't. That didn't." The one time we see Rumsfeld cry, he's remembering one of his many visits to wounded soldiers in a U.S. military hospital. He recalls one critically injured soldier's wife and her optimism that her husband would live, contrary to doctors' predictions. He lived, Rumsfeld said. It's a good-news story. Morris contrasts that anecdote with stark images of headstones, presumably at Arlington National Cemetery.
"The Unknown Known," which concludes with a dedication to the late Roger Ebert, is the work of a masterly filmmaker comfortable in his own groove. By now the director's technique is so savvy, so confident in its visual layering and atmospheric assurance, even a dodgy, cagey camera subject such as Rumsfeld becomes movieworthy.
Yet as with an earlier Morris doc, the Abu Ghraib prison account "Standard Operating Procedure," there are flourishes we could do without. Danny Elfman's music, heavy on the menacing "Nightmare Before Christmas"-y choral arrangements and Philip Glass-influenced whirligig dread, feels heavy-handed. Now and then, one senses Morris' heavy editing of the Rumsfeld answers to his questions — which we hear though Morris remains unseen — for the sake of the zinger or for clarity, concision and flow.
It's still worth seeing. This ambitious and powerful sphinx, a major force in a particular chunk of recent history, may not give away much. Watching and listening to how he doesn't give it away — that's the known known here.
"The Unknown Known" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing images and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:42
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre