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Movie review: 'The Unknown Known', Rumsfeld on what you think you know

The Unknown Known


Errol Morris has given us some fascinating documentaries over the years, with The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line and most recently, the scandalous 2010 film, Tabloid. The Unknown Known (opening today) is his latest effort, a sort-of elongated rambling with two-time former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. But it's rambling at its very finest.

"The Unknown Known."

Take this excerpt, for example, spoken by Rumsfeld in 2002 and explaining the film's title:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that 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. —Donald Rumsfeld

This to me, sounded more like a line spoken by Don Knotts in Hot Lead, Cold Feet (look it up). But it's a classic political spin-job by Rumsfeld, an intelligent man speaking intelligently, but making little intellectual sense.

Morris's doc is basically a sit-down interview with Rumsfeld covering all sorts of topics and controversies, from the search for WMDs in Iraq to the controversies surrounding the prisoners of Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld's words seem to be infused with BS, but his direct speaking style and inside know-how lead you to believe in most of what he says. This is just one man's take, anyways, and his take on things make the film compelling from start to finish, despite us knowing that he is really pulling off an elusive Jedi-mind-trick of sorts on us.

We've been groomed not to believe much of what comes out of a politician's mouth, and many may have a severe distrust for the government anyways. But we also know enough to understand that one man's truth is another man's fiction. This makes us take the film's insights as they are intended: As not what is actually known or unknown, but as Rumsfeld's take on things.

The Unknown Known ends up telling us way more about its subject than its topics, and I'm not sure that's an intended result. But here is a guy comfortable in the spotlight, who makes it look easy to dodge and spin. Rumsfeld himself is an known unknown, but this doc lands more in the known known category: We know that this is a documentary not too concerned with actually shedding light or uncovering truths, but instead is way more focused on letting us know that we don't know very much at all about what's really going on in the world.

Genre: Documentary

Run Time: 1 hours, 36 minutes, Rated PG-13

Featuring : Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris

Directed by Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, Tabloid)

Opens locally on Friday, April 11, 2014 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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