There have been political docs that have come and one that have gone, but rarely does a film get the kind of access, or at least supposed access as this one did. "The Unknown Known" sits down with one of the more iconic and memorable personalities of the 20th century politics as we get a front look and lesson from a mad who rewrote the book and political jibber jabber to such a degree that you just can't help but be impressed.
In "The Unknown Known", Errol Morris offers a portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, one of the key architects of the Iraq War, and a larger-than-life character who provoked equal levels of fury and adulation from the American public. Rather than conducting a conventional interview, Morris has Rumsfeld perform and expound on his “snowflakes,” tens of thousands of memos (many never previously published) he composed as a congressman and as an advisor to four different presidents, twice as Secretary of Defense. These memos provide a window onto history, not history as it actually happened, but history as Rumsfeld wants us to see it. Morris makes plain that Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes", whether intended to elucidate, rationalize, obfuscate, or control history, are contradicted by the facts. And in his time as the US Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, Donald Rumsfeld wielded words both to charm and to intimidate and has never been at a loss for words. His press conferences were battles where he controlled the flow of information and rarely left time for follow-up questions. No matter what you think of Rumsfeld, he's never less than mesmerizing as his dialogue with Morris is like a verbal duel, that puts us on the edge of our seats.
Quite simply an intellectual duel of the highest degree, "The Unknown Known" is a master class not only in self actualizing political jibber jabber but it feels like a hard hitting expose with really nothing at stake as the subject and the documentarian are both oddly in control of this unique narrative.
Anyone looking for a follow up to Morris' award winning doc "The Fog of War" may end up a little disappointed with this film as it is a very different yet no less compelling watch. While the film tracks many moments through the life and times of a man who has held positions of power during some of the key moments in American political history, the one thing that stands out is the man's very deliberate and masterful use of language. When Morris tries to nail him with a question, he sides steps with a calm and cool aplomb that is actually pretty damn scary.
Special features on the DVD include a feature length commentary track from Errol Morris, a conversation with director Errol Morris, the third annual report of the secretaries of defense from 1989 and a 4 part op-ed piece by Errol Morris called "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld"
While you probably won't like Donald Rumsfeld by the end of "The Unknown Known" and you certainly don't have to agree with him but you can't help but respect Rumsfeld's mastery of words and how it served him through a long career of public service.
4 out of 5 stars.
"The Unknown Known" is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, Digital Download and On Demand from all major providers.