The Unknown Known
As a protagonist, Donald Rumsfeld is a disappointment. In tragedy, (which leading a nation into a futile war would qualify), we're used to seeing clear-cut flaws within our hero's character that results in remorse, regret and catharsis. But the former United States Secretary of Defense and the principal architect of the Iraq War is not about to give us any of those things in "The Unknown Known" a complicated documentary by Errol Morris.
The movie chronicles Rumsfeld's career, but the unspoken question we come into it with must be, "What is the reason for an expensive, unproductive war and the pursuit of a rather impotent dictator?" This, it would seem, lay in Rumsfeld's certainty in weapons of mass destruction. His fears are legitimized by two catastrophic national attacks -- Pearl Harbor and 9/11. In these disasters, the United States was left in a position of utter vulnerability because we had a weakness of which we were completely unaware, an "unknown unknown."
The best defense for our nation is to realize that there are forces that we are unaware of, "know unknowns." Our awareness puts them into a new category, "unknown knowns," things our nation thinks we know, but as it turns out, we do not.
And defending ourselves against these "unknown knowns," even if they are only confabulations within a marvelous national paranoia, is vital. Because, as we are used to hearing when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
Rumsfeld is the perfect subject for this impressive cinematic interview. He's well-spoken, intelligent and friendly with a warm smile and (it seems) a genuine love for his wife. We are charmed by this man in a way we never would be by George Bush or Dick Cheney. And Errol Morris pieces the interview together in an even-handed way, which almost convinces us Rumsfeld is a reliable narrator.
As usual, Errol Morris' cover footage is visually mesmerizing and beautifully displayed in this widescreen (2.40:1) Blu-ray. Common themes like falling snow, bodies of water and warehouses full of documents are mixed with spectacles like a helicopter filmed in extreme slow motion. Though Morris uses no reenactments, he edits historic photographs and thematic footage in a way that tells a story beyond what we hear relayed by the former Secretary of Defense. The visual effects are also very nice and they focus on his words, defined and rearranged over and over.
These tremendously cinematic visuals are perfectly accompanied by Danny Elfman's music, which is so magical and haunting it almost convinces us that Saddam Hussein really is hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Special features are an important appendix to the film and include: Feature Commentary with Errol Morris, "A Conversation with Morris" about the film, the "Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense" -- a fourm recorded in 1989 and a Four-part op-ed "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld" by Errol Morris.
"The Unknown Known" is a strikingly executed installment in Errol Morris' meditations on war and the personalities that shape it. As "Standard Operating Procedure" examines the image as a weapon, this film scrutinizes the power of words in psychological warfare.
"The Known Unknown" on Blu-ray and DVD
Run time: 103 minutes