Villains tend to see themselves as the hero of their own narrative, and so it is with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a man who endlessly evades, denies and equivocates, but never wavers in his own immense self-belief. Filmmaker Errol Morris’ exhaustive and exasperating interrogation attempts to probe the mysterious workings of his subject’s vast but disturbingly reptilian mind. As one of the principal proponents of the “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld has much to answer for and much bargaining to do with future historians, a process he sets about doing with the same tactical sophistication and gumption that he used for decades to maneuver the corridors of power.
In retracing his long, complicated career, Rumsfeld displays an ability to dodge and deflect like Cassius Clay in his prime. It was this elusiveness that helped him survive numerous political disasters, including Watergate, Iran-Contra and 9/11 — scandals that ended the careers of many of his peers and rivals. Miraculously, Rumsfeld, along with his close friend Dick Cheney, just kept sailing on, earning major roles in four separate administrations, and not so subtly influencing the culture of the Republican Party for more than 40 years. The two-time defense secretary was ever an advocate of military spending, and never appeared to meet a weapons system he didn’t love. It is this hawkish commitment to vigilance that’s expressed in one of his favorite maxims: “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”
Morris skillfully adorns the proceedings with file footage, charts and symbolic imagery (long flyover shots of a swamp) backed by Danny Elfman’s moody, evocative score. This stylistic richness greatly buoys what could easily be dry, talking-head tedium, especially considering the interviewee’s refusal or inability to answer honestly. The Unknown Known serves as a bookend to Morris’ 2003 classic The Fog of War, in which Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara took the opportunity to try to explain his mathematic approach to combat, but also to unburden his soul. Rumsfeld, however, would never plead for forgiveness, and only expresses remorse for bad outcomes, never the ideology behind them.
The agile Morris fails to pin the target down, though he does back him into some rhetorical corners. Rumsfeld considers the Navy’s inability to predict Pearl Harbor as a failure of imagination, but when asked how the Bush administration could fail to predict the 9/11 attacks on our shores he glibly responds: “Everything seems amazing in retrospect.” This isn’t even the most audacious jaw-dropper; when asked about the lessons of Vietnam, Rumsfeld has the unmitigated gall to say, “Some things work out and some things don’t.”
It would take the patience of a saint to tolerate such nonsense, and Morris frequently displays frustration, though the subject maddeningly never fully reveals his hand. He merely flashes that trademark affable, impish grin and moves along.
The Unknown Known is rated PG-13 runs 106 minutes.