Watching and listening to former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speak at length—close to two hours, in fact—about his life and career in politics is a bit of a dizzying ordeal. Even with Errol Morris directing, The Unknown Known is frustrating at times and stupefying at others. But rather than being a weakness or a reason to dismiss the film as a slog through circular reasoning and overanalyzing minute details of history, the movie indeed seems to capture qualities inherent to Mr. Rumsfeld, working in a way that is emblematic of the great documentarian’s preference to create portraits rather than incisive and conclusion probes of public figures. That is to say, the audience is ultimately left to judge the exploits and demeanor of the former Secretary, rather than being blatantly instructed on what to think of him.
It’s not until the end of the movie that the imagery Morris has been using throughout begins to make complete cinematic sense. His images, in collaboration with cinematographer Robert Chappell, are gorgeous in all his films. They serve as one of the many reasons that his documentaries tend to be so compelling. This film has a few recurring images meant to visualize some of Rumsfeld’s favorite metaphors: the rolling blue sea which becomes a sea of words, a glass dome full of falling snowflakes, a locked safe beyond a narrow doorway. These are beautifully shot, and as we hear Rumsfeld speak, they resonate more deeply, particularly the repeated references to his thousands of memos, which he referred to as “snowflakes.”
The other strong visual technique Morris uses here is the close, clear shot of his subject. He cuts rather frantically at times, indicating the use of several different camera angles at once, emphasizing the performative aspects of the man being interviewed. But the way the subject is filmed, with a tight, sharp, shallow focus and soft but clear lighting, makes the documentary footage really look as though it could be a posed photographic portrait of a face, with all its features exposed. The striking visuals then become enhanced by Morris’ classic on-the-verge-of-being-overbearing score that makes the movie feel like it’s moving right along. This time it’s composed by Danny Elfman doing his best Philip Glass impression, which actually results in a lovely and haunting melding of the two signature styles, and gives the film a tone of curiosity and intense introspection, likely more on the audience’s behalf than Rumsfeld’s.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the film is the effect of superimposing definitions of certain words on top of the shot of Rumsfeld as he employs them in his interview. This is done through the majority of the film, with words like “brutal,” “dictator” and various war terminology being shown with their dictionary definitions below. It’s not until about halfway through the film that Morris really delves into Rumsfeld’s preoccupation with words and their definitions (many of the subject lines of his memos read as simply “Definitions” or “Terminology”), something Rumsfeld seems to cast as a quest for clarity, but could easily be argued is motivated by the desire to spin the truth. Indeed, for the entirety of the film, and likely for the duration of Morris’ extensive conversations with Rumsfeld, the falseness of many of his statements is painfully clear, in some moments more than others, but what is not clear is whether he is lying with the intent to deceive or whether he truly believes the stuff he’s saying. Either way he comes off as a carefully rehearsed interviewee, from the interviews with Morris here or from the archived footage of Rumsfeld’s political days going back to the 1970s.
The examination of Rumsfeld’s entire political history may cost the movie some of its momentum, but it’s essential in a better understanding of—albeit not a clear, conclusive answer to—Rumsfeld’s personal and political motivations. Is he as callous and ambitious as his early detractors insisted? Did he aspire to be President one day? Was he simply genuinely affected by history, going back to Pearl Harbor as the film explores, which in turn informed and ultimately determined his decision as Secretary of Defense? The opaqueness of Rumsfeld’s veracity, summed up in the film’s poster image of his smile which will seem disarming to some and chilling to others, is the true subject of Morris’ documentary.
Many have drawn parallels between this film and Errol Morris’ 2003 Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. The two docs share plenty of similarities: both of their subjects are former United States Secretaries of Defense who were the architects of generation-defining wars, the Vietnam War for Robert McNamara and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for Donald Rumsfeld. Morris himself, however, believes The Unknown Known is more of a companion piece for his previous documentary feature, Tabloid. The subjects of these two films put far more of an emphasis on their own performance than in earnest discussion or thoughtful examination of past events. As a portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, this may be the closest thing to honest we’re ever going to see.